I first heard these guys at a downtown street festival in June 1988 during my last days of a year long cultural exchange programme in El Paso. I was with my Bel Air High ‘homies’ – Ralph, Chris, Margot and a bunch of others. School was out, summer was hitting its stride, and my looming departure was taking every emotion to greater and greater heights.
The grid of streets around the downtown area of the city was blocked off, bands on every corner. Spiro Gyra were the headline act. They played a kind of electric jazz pop full of joyful melody and good energy on a massive stage with a big arena-busting rig, and instantly had a whole block full of people dancing, including us. I loved the sound they made, never heard anything like it. Total happy-making music. One of my friends – Ralph, I think – gifted me his copy of “Breakout”, their latest album, as a leaving present, and those tunes indelibly marked that period of my life following the inevitable headlong crash of my homecoming with a painful kind of nostalgia.
That gig, that cassette, was the beginning of a love affair with 80s big-hair smooth RnB type jazz that took shape when I got into David Sanborn, courtesy of a mix tape another El Paso pal sent over. Back home in EK, I joined a few bands, acquired a sax from one of them (the Perth TA band) and started trying to play jazz myself.
But snobbery follows jazz as flies follow shit. I remember talking up this band to a few guys I’d been hanging out with, older jazzers, not quite realising that Spiro Gyra were considered beyond-the-pale shit. Noodlers. Widdlers. Popsters. Not Real Jazz. Disposable – “Biro Giro”, one quipped. I got the gist pretty quickly. I clearly had a long way to go to train my ear, but the implied insult in the knowing laughter and sideways glances I was getting still stung. Embarrassed and ashamed of my ignorance, I relegated my cherished tape and nascent jazz fusion enthusiasms to the bottom drawer.
Listening back to them again, they’re obviously not the worst of the pop-jazz-rock stuff that was around at the time, nor are they particularly outstanding – I suppose the word you’d use is ‘safe’. It seems the biggest crime they committed in the ears of the True Jazzers was that of tunefulness. Tunefulness in jazz can often be equated with simplicity, naivety; True Jazz is supposed to be spiky and difficult, and isn’t taken seriously if it’s dancable or hummable. I don’t remember where I bought “Morning Dance”, but whatever else it might be, the title track is a fabulous tune and remains one of my favourite things to play on the alto.
Spiro Gyra and the whole jazz fusion idiom were, in a sense, rehabilitated for me years later when I was playing in the Strathclyde Arts Centre Big Band – a pretty serious & heavy-weight junior outfit that has given the world a whole bunch of amazing players – and the guy who was joint leader brought out an arrangement of ‘Morning Dance’. As well my delight at my tune belatedly receiving the kind of True Jazzer approval I lacked when I was starting out, the piece made my spine tingle just the way it did when I heard them all those years ago in El Paso.
Train the ears, but trust the tingle.