To some people, the notion of jazz composition seems almost self-contradictory. After all, jazz is about improvisation -- making the music up as you go along -- so why would anyone need to write stuff out?
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that, says saxophonist Jay Beckenstein. Take Spyro Gyra, the group Beckenstein has led since 1975. "We are improvisationalists, and we do a lot of improvising on our compositions," Beckenstein says. "But the compositions are just as important as the improvisations."
One of the few jazz acts ever to earn a platinum album award (in 1979, for "Morning Dance"), Spyro Gyra is largely defined by it compositions, he says. Speaking over the phone from his farm in Suffern, N.Y., Beckenstein explains that his group has always exclusively played material written by "a very close family of people associated with the band."
"These are people who are writing the material specifically for the instruments and players that are in the band at the time," he says. That's not to say that the material is shaped to fit the personalities of each musician; sometimes, says Beckenstein, he ended up changing the musicians in Spyro Gyra to meet the demands of the music.
"Every composition we do really is different," Beckenstein says. "There have been some times where it's 100 percent improvised, where we don't bring anything and just record the band fooling around. On the other hand, there are tunes like 'Unknown Soldier,' which I wrote virtually the way I would approach a classical piece. Everything was predetermined; there was a certain amount of improv, but all inside a pretty strict framework."
That's one of the ways in which Spyro Gyra's music has continued to evolve throughout the band's 15-album history, a process neatly encapsulated on its current retrospective, "Collection." Even so, Beckenstein admits that it's "an enormous challenge" to keep the music moving forward.
"There are geniuses out there, and then there are people like me who have to bang their head against the wall," he laughs. "I really understand the importance of not having the music sound the same from record to record. My desire is to constantly move the band forward, but that's easy to say and hard to do.
"I remember when every single Miles Davis record I bought was a radical and amazing departure from the last one," he adds. "I grew up during that whole time when 'Filles de Kilimanjaro' and 'Bitches Brew' and 'On the Corner' were coming out. It was one record after another. They were great. And I felt to some extent that Weather Report did the same thing.
"Those have been my heroes, not necessarily because any single one of those records was the greatest thing ever made, but they had this ability to take these big strides from record to record. I certainly can't lay claim to the same thing. I dream about making those kind of statements that those people made."
Still, he's pretty proud of what Spyro Gyra has managed over the years. "Whether we're the most incredibly revolutionary talented people in the world, I don't know," he says. "In fact, I doubt it. But as far as our resolve to make good music and to keep challenging ourselves, we've been really diligent."
And what more could a listener ask?
When: July 14, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavillion
Tickets: $20 pavillion, $15.50 lawn
Call: 730-2424 for information, 481-6000 for tickets