Over a year, their work evolved into Spyro Gyra. Wall has commented, that their sound was a “gutbucket of rhythmic tradition. We did simple music and esoteric stuff. It all came together, this oddball mix, until we found a middle ground, our own groove”.
Breaking out of Buffalo
As the group played more venues around Buffalo and became a regular at the Tralfamadore Cafe, their increasing popularity landed them opening slots for national acts and performances in nearby Rochester and Cleveland. During this time, the band featured two guitarists: Alfred “Fast Freddy” Rapillo (who later played for Rick James) and Rick Strauss.
When Tom Walsh moved to California, the drum chair was alternately taken by Tom Duffy, Ted Reinhardt, and others. Tom Schuman, who had been sitting in with the band from the age of 16, became a fixture in 1977. The group had two keyboard players for a brief period until Jeremy Wall left the performing band in 1978.
The first eponymous album Spyro Gyra, self-released in late 1977, reflected these personnel as well as some guests like vibraphone player Dave Samuels and percussionist Rubens Bassini. The album attracted the attention of locally based Amherst Records, who re-released the first album with new artwork.
The debut album was one of Billboard’s Top 40 Jazz Albums of 1978. Bronx-born percussionist and drummer Gerardo Velez, who started his career with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, became a regular in the band around this time. He gained fame with early fans as Spyro Gyra’s “dancing percussionist.”
The early albums
The band’s follow-up recording, Morning Dance (1979), financed by Amherst, was partly recorded in New York City and included notable guests like guitarist John Tropea, bassist Will Lee, multi-instrumentalist Steve Jordan, saxophonist Michael Brecker, trumpeter and flugelhornist Randy Brecker and pianist Suzanne Ciani.
In the course of recording Morning Dance, drummer Eli Konikoff replaced Ted Reinhardt on drums, and guitarist Freddy Rapillo returned to the group to replace Rick Strauss. Rapillo was later replaced by Rochester guitarist Chet Catallo.
The March 1979 release of Morning Dance gave the band national and international notoriety. Through Infinity Records, a start-up label owned by MCA Records, the group appeared in most major US cities and many jazz festivals in Europe in 1979.
The Morning Dance album became a platinum seller, Billboard’s No. 3 Jazz Album of 1980, and peaked at No. 11 in the UK Albums Chart. The album’s title song became a #1 adult contemporary single, Billboard ‘s No. 6 adult contemporary single of 1979, and reached No. 17 in the UK Singles Chart.
When Infinity Records folded, Spyro Gyra’s follow-up record, Catching the Sun, was released on MCA Records in February 1980 to similar success, becoming the No. 4 jazz album of 1980 and peaking at No. 31 in the UK.
Bass player Jim Kurzdorfer left the group in 1980, replaced by David Wofford. The group released their next album, Carnaval, in late 1980. Like Catching the Sun before it, Carnaval was a gold selling album. Carnaval became Billboard’s No. 7 jazz album of 1981.
Freetime, the group’s fifth album, was released in 1981 and became the #8 Jazz Album of 1982. 1982’s Incognito became Billboard’s #8 Jazz Album of 1983 and featured bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Steve Gadd, saxophonist Tom Scott, pianist Richard Tee, guitar and harmonica player Toots Thielemans and pianist Jorge Dalto as guests. 1983’s City Kids incorporated bass player Kim Stone (later with the Rippingtons).
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