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THIS WEEK'S FEATURED STORIES

All that jazz: Spyro Gyra performs at Pawleys festival

By Carrie Humphreys
For the Coastal Observer

We caught up with the founder of Spyro Gyra, Jay Beckenstein, as he strolled the streets of Seattle where he and his musician pals were playing a four-night gig. Spyro Gyra wanders the world showcasing their unique contemporary jazz.

“We’ve played some pretty exotic places,“ Beckenstein said by cell phone. “Three weeks ago we played in Angola, Africa. And we’ve played in Indonesia, India, China, Japan, South America, all over the world.”

Spyro Gyra’s jazz is applauded everywhere, said Beckenstein. “Since our music is mostly instrumental, there is never a language barrier. And I think the core things that my group represents – which is sort of teamwork improvisation, mastering your instrument – those things are universally appreciated.”

When Spyro Gyra descends on Pawleys Island, the group plans to play some of their former hits, like “Morning Dance” and “Shaker Song.”

“We’ve learned that some of the old stuff is what our audience wants to hear. But we pride ourselves on not relying on the hits of the past. We’re actually doing some of our best stuff now. We’ll mix it all in.”

Beckenstein always desired to become a musician. “My friends used to marvel at that. They wanted to become an astronaut or fireman and I always wanted to become a famous jazz saxophonist. I’m blessed. My childhood fantasy was fulfilled.”

He formed Spyro Gyra 36 years ago. His father was disappointed.

“He was very set on me being a doctor or lawyer. He wasn’t happy when in school I went from being a med student to being a music major. My greatest moment was standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall receiving a gold record, with my father right next to me. He turned to me and said, ‘maybe you were right!’ ”

The beginnings of the band grew out of a weekly jam session at a club in Buffalo, N.Y. named Jack Daniel’s. The informal weekly session was known only as “Tuesday Night Jazz Jam.” As their popularity grew, the club owner wanted to put a name of the group on a new sign that he had just bought for the front of the club. One late night, the owner asked Beckenstein to decide on a name for his sign.

“Call it spirogira,” he said. Spirogira is an algae that Beckenstein remembered from biology class that is commonly known as “pond scum.” The next week, that name was on the sign incorrectly spelled as “Spyro Gyra.”

Beckenstein, father of three daughters, is frustrated that more American youth don’t engage in classical, jazz and blues music.

“Young people are deluged and like their multi-media. They want a video and dancers and fireworks and a sexy star, and maybe somewhere in that mix is great music. But I would say to them that they are missing out on a lot by not simply concentrating sometimes on pure musicianship and pure mastery that some musicians have.

“I tell them to try to have a little less focus on the lights and costumes and a little more focus on extraordinary playing. It would be very rewarding for them.”

Spyro Gyra plays at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Brookgreen Gardens. For tickets, go to the festival website.

Classic Americana: The Kickin Grass Band

The Kickin Grass musicians – founders Jamie and Lynda Dawson, and Patrick Walsh, plus Patty Hopkins and Hank Smith – spend most of their time on a bus traveling from Florida to Canada and beyond playing their “roots” music. Following their afternoon performance under the oaks at Brookgreen, they are off to Nashville.

Smith, for one, can’t wait to get to Pawleys Island. He grew up in Florence. “I feel like I’m coming home,” he said. “After we’re done performing, I’ll go eat at my parents house – they live in Murrells Inlet.”

Smith, a recent addition to the 10-year-old band hailing from North Carolina, said what sets them apart from other bluegrass bands is their creativeness. They write their own music, songs that reflect the depth and breadth of the human experience. Some mournful. Some jubilant. All sung with passion and grace.

“Our songwriting material is original,” Smith said.

Smith described their unique sound as Americana/Gillian Welsh style. “We incorporate the classical and traditional into our writing,” he said.

Expect some fun, Smith hinted. “Our banjo and fiddle players sometimes battle to see who gets the most applause.”

Local bluegrass musicians Phyllis Tanner Frye and Steve Russell, plus the popular Sawgrass band will kick off all the fiddling around. The performance starts at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 25 at Brookgreen Gardens. For tickets, go to the festival website.

Raising the curtain: Charleston Chamber Opera

Short, sweet and fun is how Charleston Chamber Opera Company director Lara Wilson described their upcoming performance. She called it classical music made palatable for all – mostly light and popular pieces.

For their recital at the Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, soprano Rebecca Flaherty and tenor Kelly Burns have prepared an accessible, short program and will enlighten the audience about their selections.

Wilson hopes for at least a sprinkling of youth in the audience. Most opera aficionados are over 50, she said.

“Unfortunately, young people haven’t been educated in our genre. But this program is good for young adults. It’s a great entrée into the art.”

Charleston Chamber Opera was founded in 2008 by Wilson and Patrice Tiedemann, friends from Indiana University, with a mission to be the most accomplished and creative opera company in the Southeast. Their desire is to meld theater and opera, and as they continue to grow, they hope to perform larger and grander works.

Also on the program are the Georgetown Cultural Council’s Young Treasure scholarship winners.

The performance is Sept. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church. For tickets, go to the festival website.

Five voices, one sound: Ball in the House

The Ball in the House call themselves a “vocal band.” They are without instruments. A cappella. These five males sing their hearts out. One note at a time.

Jon Ryan is among the group. “You would think that one note for each person would be a thin sound, but it isn’t. The sound, because of the creative arrangements, is really cool.”

Don’t expect barbershop. These gents croon everything from pop, to soul, to R&B, to contemporary. “Some of our favorite stuff comes from Motown. We do some Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, the Temptations, that kind of thing.”

They have performed with such artists as The Beach Boys, Gladys Knight, The Jonas Brothers, Jessica Simpson, Fantasia, Smokey Robinson, KC & The Sunshine Band, Kool & the Gang, and numerous others.

How did they come up with such a unique name? It refers to an episode of the Brady Bunch, Ryan said. “The group was sitting around trying to think of a good name. The TV was on in the background and everyone took a break and started watching it. It was about the Brady kids throwing a ball around in the house. The message from the show was that Mom always said, ‘Don’t play ball in the house.’ We loved it and it stuck!”

The Ball in the House does about 250 worldwide shows a year, from small clubs to concerts with audiences of 40,000. Ryan said the vocals appeal to all ages. Kids really respond to the harmony and the different sound, he said.

The group is taking that sound to Waccamaw and Carolina Forest high schools. They’ve sent music ahead to the school choirs and will conduct a workshop with the choral groups upon their arrival.

“We love getting involved with schools. We like to inspire these kids to become involved in the arts,” Ryan said. “These kids may be our future Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, let’s say. It’s a cool thing and we want to be professional role models for them.

“We’ve given them the music and we’ll rehearse our collaboration during our workshop. We’ll sing and they’ll fill out the harmony. Sometime during our concert, they will join us on stage.”

The performance is Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. at Brookgreen Gardens. For tickets, go to the festival website.

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