That opening riff. Hear that, and you know what's coming.
A tropical breeze, personified in music. I was a teenager, going
into my senior year in high school when I first heard "Morning
Dance," the signature song by what would become my favorite group,
Spyro Gyra, in my favorite genre of music, jazz. Until then, the
summer of 1979, I was a jazz novice, having only become focused on
the genre a couple years earlier with the releases of Chuck
Mangione's "Feels So Good" and Maynard Ferguson's cover of "Gonna
Fly Now (Theme from 'Rocky')."
Of course, I was predestined to love jazz anyway, having become
familiar with big band, swing and bebop stylings from old movies,
cartoon shorts, TV show themes, a handful of television
appearances by artists like Al Hirt, Louis Armstrong and Buddy
Rich, and a few songs my mother sang. But those two songs by
Mangione and Ferguson led me to purchase the associated albums:
Mangione's Feels So Good and Ferguson's Conquistador.
Listening to, and loving, all 12 tracks on the combined releases
awakened my ears, and my mind, to the diverse soundscape that is
So with my interest in the genre growing as I transitioned from
teen to adult, my attention was turned to this new group called
Though saxophonist Jay Beckenstein is basically the front man for
this group, and composer of "Morning Dance," it's the presence of
Dave Samuels that sets this recording apart from other
instrumental music of the time, or perhaps any era. The marimba,
as lovely an instrument as there is, is not very common among
small ensembles. So when I hear one, I take notice.
That was the case with a pop/rock song released a few years
earlier: "Moonight Feels Right" by Starbuck.
Moonight Feels Right
A beautiful, easygoing, romantic song, "MFR," as composer/lead
singer Bruce Blackman refers to it, is enhanced by Bo Wagner's
Likewise, Dave's solo enhances an already beautiful "Morning
After hearing a few more recordings, I became a fan of Spyro Gyra.
In the early years, Dave Samuels was more of a session player than
a full-time member of the group, contributing some background
sounds and solos on vibraphone or marimba. In 1983, he was invited
to tour with the band and became a regular member, appearing more
prominently on that year's City Kids than on previous
albums. He composed his first song for the group, "Mardi Gras,"
for the 1985 album, Alternating Currents.
That song prepped me for Dave's next effort, "Whirlwind," from
Breakout was aptly named, a slightly different and, in
ways, more adventurous offering from Spyro Gyra. And the first
time I heard "Whirlwind," I was awestruck. Something about it,
that in 33 years I still am not sure I can adequately describe in
words. First, there's the haunting, ethereal mood. The melody was
unlike anything I'd ever heard. Every song is supposed to be
different in some way, but "Whirlwind" was even more different
than that. Of course, Dave's marimba solo is a major highlight.
Then we get to Jay's solo on the alto sax, one of the most
emotionally charging passages I'd ever heard up to that point. Add
Richie Morales' drumming, Kim Stone's bass line, Tom Schuman's
subtle work on the keys, Manolo Badrena on percussion, and Julio
Fernandez's guitar, and you've got one for the ages .
"Whirlwind" quickly became a favorite song of mine.
When you consider the body of work a group like Spyro Gyra has
produced, even the most loyal fan has a nearly impossible
challenge to name a single favorite song. Or even a Top 10 that
isn't always fluctuating, with track rankings on perpetual
shuffle, or honorable mentions occasionally bumping a ranked song
from the list. Yet, somehow, when fellow SG fans ask what my
favorite song is, "Whirlwind" is always among the top three.
Depending on how long since my most recent listen and what other
favorites I've listened to during the interim, "Whirlwind" may be
Dave would continue to perform with and compose for Spyro
Gyra for another decade. He also released a few solo albums, and
for several years fronted the Caribbean Jazz Project, a group that
explored different aspects of Latin jazz.
Even after departing Spyro Gyra, Dave continued to contribute as a
guest artist for several subsequent albums. Mixed in with all
that, Dave taught at Berklee College of Music and the New England
Conservatory of Music, produced the instructional video, Mallet
Keyboard Musicianship in 1988, and wrote a book, Contemporary
Vibraphone Technique, published in 1992.
Born on October 9, 1948, in Waukegan, Illinois, Dave Samuels died
in New York City on April 22, 2019. Spyro Gyra announced his
passing on the group's Facebook page.
I think anytime we lose a favorite artist, of any genre or medium,
we feel a bit of ourselves gone. Especially when it's someone
whose career has spanned decades, and we've been along for the
ride during the bulk of said career. In my case, the musical
artists who were with me during my developing years and most of my
adult life and have had the greatest impact are Maynard Ferguson,
the Eagles' Glenn Frey, Steely Dan's Walter Becker, Michael
Jackson, Kelly Groucutt of the Electric Light Orchestra and
Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire.
We hate to see them go. But at the same time, I feel joy from
having experienced their contributions for so many years.
Thank you, Dave Samuels. You've made my world a better place.