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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Don Mather, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf, Glyn Pursglove

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A Night Before Christmas

Heads Up HUCD 3145




1. O Tannenbaum
2. It Won't Feel Like Christmas
3. Winter Wonderland
4. Christmas Time Is Here
5. Baby, It's Cold Outside
6. Carol of the Bells
7. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
8. The First Noel
9. Silent Night
10. This Christmas
11. Christmas Song

Jay Beckenstein - Saxophones
Julio Fernandez - Guitars
Tom Schuman - Keyboards
Scott Ambush - Bass
Bonny B - Drums, vocals
Christine Ebersole - Vocals (track 2)
Dave Samuels - Vibraphone (tracks 3, 6)
Janis Siegel - Vocals (track 5)

And still they come...the Christmas albums. This one is by Spyro Gyra, a jazz-fusion group which might be called a "one-hit wonder", as they had just one British hit single (in 1977) with Morning Dance. That tune had an attractive melody and a danceable Latin-American beat, topped off with Jay Beckenstein's gorgeous alto sax.

Jay Beckenstein is still the mainstay of the band, which got its name from a club owner's mis-spelling of spirogyra, a word which Beckenstein jokingly suggested, remembering it from biology lessons as meaning a kind of pond scum. They have never been scum but were always a polished group, although the polish is much smoother these days. Gone are the stimulating Latin rhythms and most of the jazz-rock impetus, leaving Spyro Gyra dangerously close to the derided category of "smooth jazz". Their playing of the traditional songs on this album tends to be too reverential, with less jazz feeling than I would have liked.

The opening track O Tannenbaum is difficult to disentangle from its other lives as The Red Flag and Maryland, My Maryland, but there are respectable solos from Beckenstein (on soprano sax), Fernandez and Schuman. Jay moves to tenor sax for It Won't Feel Like Christmas, an original which is closer to pop than jazz as sung by Christine Ebersole (who won a Tony award for her role in 42nd Street).

Winter Wonderland adds vibist Dave Samuels to the mix but the only soloist is guitarist Julio Fernandez. Drummer Bonny B joins Janis Siegel for a vocal duet on Baby, It's Cold Outside, which has pleasant solos from Beckenstein, Fernandez and Ambush. However, the playing is tepid, and it's rather chilly inside as well as outside. Dave Samuels returns for Carol of the Bells but his solo has none of the fire you might expect from the main man in the Caribbean Jazz Project, although Beckenstein puts some punch into his closing statement on soprano sax.

Tom Schuman's piano solo in Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas actually gets into swinging jazz. Jay's alto sax is rather too polite but the tune gets funky towards the end when the frontmen interchange bluesy improvisations. The album also perks up for the final track, with Bonny B's energetic vocals on The Christmas Song, which have a remarkable resemblance to Al Jarreau in his prime.

I have liked some of the many recordings that Spyro Gyra have made over the years but this album is a long way from what the Concord Music Group website describes as Spyro Gyra's "edgy" sound. Most of the music is agreeable but generally too inhibited to be much more than inoffensive background music for your Christmas party.

Tony Augarde




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