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Samuels Follows a Different Beat Outside Spyro Gyra

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The musicians in jazz-oriented pop groups like Spyro Gyra, the Yellowjackets and Chicago are the big band sidemen of this era. Like the Roy Eldridges, Johnny Hodges and Gene Krupas of the ‘30s and ‘40s, they glean the benefits of steady work with successful musical organizations. But they must also endure the inevitable creative restrictions of playing the same music, night in and night out.

Percussionist and mallet player Dave Samuels, whose vibraphone and marimba have provided Spyro Gyra with a good part of its unique sound for nearly a decade, is well aware of both the assets and the liabilities of long-term performance with a prosperous band.

“Well, one thing’s sure,” he said during a telephone interview last week, “you can’t sell records by playing totally new things every night. It just won’t happen. So there’s no doubt that working with a group like Spyro means running into a consistent sameness that’s just inherent to playing repeated programs.

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“But, if you’re an improviser, playing the same material doesn’t have to be a handicap. Even if you’re playing something for the 300th time, you can still come up with something new. Or at least you can inspire someone else to play something different. It’s one way to keep yourself vibrant and alive.”

Another way--and one often chosen by big band sidemen--is to maintain a schedule of alternate music activities outside the group. One of Samuels’ efforts in that direction will be on display when he appears at At My Place in Santa Monica tonight with a solid, very non- Spryo Gyra-like ensemble that includes pianist Kei Akagi, bassist Tim Landers, guitarist Pat Kelley and drummer Richie Morales.

Samuels is not at all bothered by the need to use different players for his occasional solo gigs. “Quite the contrary,” he said. “I like getting different conceptions of my music from different players. Sure, it would be ideal to travel around with the same players all the time. But it’s also exciting to hear my music played by new players in other parts of the country.”

In another outside venture, Samuels’ first solo album since joining Spyro Gyra (“Living Colors,” MCA) has shown solid sales and upscale airplay since its release last April.

Interestingly, it was produced by Jay Beckenstein, Spyro Gyra’s saxophonist and chief guiding light. But a hearing of the album quickly reveals few Spyro Gyra touches.

“Jay’s a good producer,” Samuels said. “And that’s why he worked on the album. He made absolutely no effort to direct the music either toward or away from Spyro Gyra. He just wanted to make sure that I got what I was looking for in the clearest possible fashion. And I did.

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“I was very conscious of not wanting to have anyone from Spyro on the recording, not because I don’t enjoy working with those players, but because I wanted to use musicians who brought to the session musical histories completely different from the guys in Spyro Gyra.”

Samuels’ connection with the popular band has been a bit less long-term than it seems on the surface. A graduate of Boston University and a veteran performer with everyone from Gerry Mulligan and Carla Bley to Anthony Davis and Frank Zappa, his initial connection with Spyro Gyra was extremely casual.

“I first met them,” he recalled, “when they were a local bar band up in Buffalo. Although it appears from the recordings that I was with the group from the beginning, for the first five or six years I was basically just a hired musician who’d go into the studio and overdub my music. I knew Jay and a couple of other guys, but nobody else was ever there when I recorded.

“I didn’t really become a performing member until ’82 or ‘83, and when I did start performing, it wasn’t really my idea. One day they called me up and asked me to go on tour. I looked in my date book, saw an awful lot of white space and said, ‘Why not?’ and it’s just continued on from there.

“From my standpoint, it wasn’t something that was planned, or that I was hoping for. But it’s given me the opportunity to explore a whole other side of my playing, since it’s a very different musical environment from what I was experiencing before I joined the band.”

Working from time to time with his own groups, planning new solo recordings, teaching at percussion workshops and clinics and occasionally soloing with large orchestras, he has successfully used Spyro Gyra as a secure home base from which to embark on his many sidebar musical ventures.

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“I guess you could say I’ve got the best of both worlds,” he said, with a laugh. “So I think you’ll see me banging the mallets for Spyro Gyra well into the foreseeable future.”

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