Voltarol - related music

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Smokin'In The Pit

Vibraphonist Mike Maineiri has fronted his own band - Steps Ahead – for getting on for thirty years now. The band has gone through many personnel changes over the years but I first bought an album by them in 1983. This was the first, eponymous album and it blew me away. It featured the young Eliane Elias on piano, Michael Brecker on tenor saxophone, Eddie Gomez on double bass and Peter Erskine on drums. Mainieri was playing synthivibe (an invention of his own) as well as vibraphone and marimba.

I thought the playing was terrific, the group sound extremely integrated and the compositions excellent. To me, the music had overtones of what Weather Report were doing - what was (and still is) rather contemptuously referred to as ‘jazz fusion’ – and I liked it a lot. For my money this material, like that of Weather Report represented another move forward with the music. It was an expansion of ideas, with the musicians simply bringing fresh ingredients to the table. Over the years the band would include more of the elements that the most staid jazz fans despise – electric basses and guitars and all manner of synthesisers – but at this stage there was only the synthivibe to point in this direction. It was the ideas rather than the instrumentation that defined it.

The next album – ‘Modern Times’ (1984) – saw the departure of pianist Elias and the arrival of keyboardist Warren Bernhardt. It also featured some guest musicians and a more electronic sound and I enjoyed it even more than the first album. Later versions of the band would consolidate this approach and feature electric guitar, electric bass and plenty of synthesis, but ‘Modern Times’ remained my favourite Maineiri - led album for many years, until the re-release of something that I had somehow managed to miss at the time. That something was ‘Steps / Smokin’ In The Pit’ and here’s what Mike Mainieri had to say about it in the sleeve notes for the 1999 CD release.

In December of 1979, our newly formed group Steps, ventured beyond it’s home, the Jazz club “Seventh Avenue South” where we had been playing to sold out crowds for several months and left for Tokyo where we had been invited to record three albums for Nippon Columbia. Two albums were to be recorded in one week, a ‘live’ double album of performances at the Pitt Inn Tokyo on the 15th and 16th and a studio recording on the 17th of December, 1979. The double live album, ‘Smokin’ In The Pit’ was released in 1980 and was awarded a gold record. The studio album, ‘Step by Step’ was released shortly after, followed by another live recording in the summer of 1980 at Seventh Ave South entitled Paradox. These three recordings were the only albums released by the group under the name of Steps. Upon signing with Elektra Records in 1982, we learned that a local band in North Carolina had trademarked the name Steps and hence Steps Ahead became our new moniker. These two discs contain the original eight compositions plus three alternate takes and three new additional compositions.

This is stunning stuff. There is a fantastic energy running through every track and every track is a winner. The alternate takes of songs are from performances on different nights, and listening to the versions side by side shows just how fresh and inventive these guys were, and how much they seemed to get off on each other’s playing. The line up here is Maineiri – vibraphone, Michael Brecker – tenor sax, Eddie Gomez – double bass and the wonderful Don Grolnick – piano. There is also a guest performance by the great Japanese guitarist, Kazumi Watanabe. It’s interesting to note that Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick and Michael Brecker all went on to contribute to some of the great non-jazz albums of our times. Gadd and Brecker worked with Paul Simon and Steely Dan. Gadd and Grolnick worked with James Taylor. Brecker also worked with Joni Mitchell. Alas, both Michael Brecker and Don Grolnick are no longer with us, but I’m happy to say that I am looking forward to seeing Steve Gadd with James Taylor later in the year.

Needless to say there is no YouTube material by this line up but below are a selection of Steps Ahead and related artists clips. The album itself is still available from the usual suspects and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I think it might well be up there in my top ten all time favourite albums, if only I could bring myself to decide on only ten…

This is the line up from the Steps Ahead album playing a Don Grolnick composition but with Eliane Elias on piano

This is a later line up with Steve Gadd back in the drum chair.

and here is Don Grolnick leading a workshop through his own composition - Pools - that is featured in the first clip.