A Night Before Christmas by Spyro Gyra – reviewed by Chris Mann

As a fan of Spyro Gyra since the late 70’s, and as a guy who’s always glad to unpack the Christmas decorations, the sound of an envelope with Heads Up printed on it was music to my ears as it dropped through my mailbox this week.

If you have heard Spyro Gyra’s music, you will have an idea what’s on this disc and you’ll understand why I was glad this veteran jazz outfit have recorded a seasonal musical celebration in their distinctive style.

“O Tannenbaum” is a joyous opener and Jay Beckenstein’s sweet soprano sax carries the melody as you’d expect. Lovely touches come from Tom Schuman on acoustic piano and Julio Fernandez on acoustic guitar. I’m in the mood already. The vocal “It Won’t Feel Like Christmas” is an original co-written by Beckenstein. Christine Ebersole’s vocal performance is the star here, though she plays it safe.

The acoustic bass which opens “Winter Wonderland” hints at the very traditional treatment this song will get, and Spyro Gyra alumnus Dave Samuels does just what’s needed on vibes before Fernandez steps forward with a lovely jazzy solo on semi-acoustic guitar. Schuman’s grand intro to “Christmas Time is Here” is both warm and sparkly, like a glass of mulled wine in front of the fire (Lord, Chris don’t get carried away). The pace of this song is slower than on some versions I’ve heard and it underlines the intrinsic romance – the guys capture it wonderfully here.

More acoustic bass opens the playful and swinging “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. The vocals of drummer Bonny B and Janis Siegel complement each other well, as do the spirited alto sax, guitar and bass solos. This track sounds like a live recording – some real atmosphere has been captured here and if the band plays this tune in shows over the holiday period, the crowd will lap it up! Skittering drums open “Carol of the Bells”. Again Dave Samuels’ vibes add a nice dimension to this very traditional song, which some might recognise as “Greensleeves”. To my ears, he and Tom Schuman have never sounded better or more evocative – their notes just hang in the air like big, fat snowflakes (Chris, come on now…). The minor chord that this ends on makes my hairs stand on end – lovely.

To me, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is the only Christmas song I ever need. Once I’ve heard this, Santa is on his way. The melody is strong and the treatment is very respectful. This is a jazz tune – with some blues thrown in for good measure. Loving this. The band are more adventurous on “The First Noel” – not with tricks or showboating, just tasteful use of acoustic instruments to expand on a well-known theme and, of course, finally ‘bring it home’.

Traditionalists should love “Silent Night”, starting with the lush piano of Tom Schuman leading the verse, with gently brushed skins and cymbals providing all the rhythm that’s needed on this gem. Then that glorious semi-acoustic guitar chimes in and I’m left thinking that this kind of restraint isn’t typical of much of Spyro Gyra’s playing (on record at least) but I am seriously into this. What is typical of this band is the ability to do something a little different and I like the way they shift some rhythmic accents on “This Christmas”. By now I’m hooked and they’d have to pull something pretty strange off to break the spell… The scat at the start of “The Christmas Song” almost does that, in fact, but stick with it because this turns into a real jazz tune. The Al Jarreau-style vocals take a couple of plays to get used to but Spyro Gyra’s ability to bring something new to the party has to be applauded.

If you look at the tracklist, you’ll see that this is a solid choice of songs. Once you’ve listened to it a couple of times you may realise, as I just have, that this is a seasonal Spyro Gyra ‘unplugged’.

The last Christmas CD that came in a Heads Up envelope became a cherished addition to my music collection. This cosy glow I have suggests that this disc will be joining it on my shelves… I even love the cover art.


Heads Up International – HUCD 3145 Producer – Jay Beckenstein