Spyro Gyra in Dubai

US jazz act flying the flag for their genre at Dubai Jazz Festival

Interview

It’s a criticism that Dubai International Jazz Festival founder Anthony Younes admits to hearing every year – that the event programmes a worryingly small portion of jazz. Of course the organisers are under great commercial pressure, but we at Time Out are fond of music’s most spontaneous genre; where the energy of rock meets the virtuosity of the classical world.

For that reason we tracked down the most jazzy-looking act on the menu: American fusion monsters Spyro Gyra. Over the past 35 years, the band have blended elements of funk, R&B and pop into their 25 instrumental jazz fusion albums, racking up 10 million record sales in the process. With their electronic instrumentation and poppy changes, they’re far from ‘traditional’ jazz musicians – but they have all the gut, verve and technique of true jazz players. They’re also far removed from the poppy singer-songwriters you’ll find elsewhere on the festival bill – a fact not lost on 60-year-old saxophonist Jay Beckenstein.

You’re one of a handful of jazz acts performing at Dubai’s ‘jazz’ festival.
That’s a shame. There are plenty of great jazz musicians to do jazz festivals, but pop stars are a bigger draw. Do I wish for a world which is more focused on more interesting music? Sure. But most people want obvious musical genres. The thing about jazz festivals is they sound really cool and sophisticated and will attract sponsors; but in terms of a large crowd they want the pop acts.

You’re sometimes given that horrible ‘smooth jazz’ label.
People can say whatever they want. I have no control over that – the fact is we pre-dated the radio format of ‘smooth jazz’ by a good 10 years. The place we come from is far more Miles Davis. To a great extent, ‘smooth jazz’ is just instrumental R&B; that’s great, but we come from a world of jazz that’s not about the arrangement, but about that wonderful interaction and musical reaction.

It’s interesting you bring up Miles Davis…
In 1980 we were his warm-up band – we did all sorts of shows with him. An interesting fact about Miles is he didn’t like going on last, so we had the unenviable task of going on after him. It was a great experience; we had the incredible honour of meeting him late in his life.

What was he like?
He was pretty private and had a reputation for being… let’s use a nice word… grouchy. The stories about Miles are legendary – there are so many of them. We were young, we worshipped this man, it was such an incredible honour, mind-blowing – so every single show we sent him flowers backstage. The fifth night he popped his head round our dressing room door and said, ‘Spyro Gyra okay.’ It was like being blessed by
the Pope. If Miles said we were okay, then we were okay.’

As a virtuoso, how much do you practise?
I practise enough not to be a weak player, but not obsessively. If I did 30 minutes a day, that would be barely enough to stay in shape. It’s like running or being an athlete.

Can you keep up with your own playing of the past?
That’s the wonderful thing about jazz; as you go along you change your style to meet your own faculties. Can I hold a note as long as I could when I was 25? No – but now I have much more idea what that note should be.

When was the last time you did a job that wasn’t playing music?
When I was 19 I worked for a chain-link-fence company; I was a hole digger and I hated it. That was the last time I was unable to support myself playing music.

Who’s the greatest musician you’ve played with?
The single most intimidating moment of my career was when I played with [US jazz saxophonist] Michael Brecker. He was an absolute force of nature – you’d be sitting there while he played four times faster than you could think.

What was your last visit to Dubai’s Jazz Festival like?
We were there two years ago. We had a really great time and put on a great show – it was really, really awesome and we’re looking forward to coming back. One impression I had is that most of the people I met were not actually from Dubai; it’s very cosmopolitan and I like that.

Spyro Gyra play the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival at Al Badia Golf Club in Dubai Festival City on Thursday February 23, sharing the bill with Jason Mraz and Sandi Thom. Tickets from Dhs295. www.timeouttickets.com

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