Sunday, July 14, 2019

Steps Ahead - 1984 "Modern Times"

Steps Ahead is a jazz fusion group formed by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri in the 1970s. The lineup consisted of Mainieri, Michael Brecker, Don Grolnick, Eddie Gómez, and Steve Gadd and would change often over the years. Steps Ahead fused elements of rock, funk, jazz, and rhythm and blues.

By 1984, Steps Ahead's personnel had stabilized with original keyboardist Warren Bernhardt rejoining the group and teaming up with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Peter Erskine, and vibraphonist Mike Mainieri; guitarist Chuck Loeb guests on one selection, as does Tony Levin, who is heard on the Chapman stick. This outing is very electronic and does not quite reach the heights of Steps Ahead's earlier Elektra album, but it certainly has plenty of spirit and power.

Michael Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s works like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G.

And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band was diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…

Released in 1984, Modern Times, the group's second album as Steps Ahead, was a radical departure from their self-titled debut. Unlike the first album's mostly acoustic textures, Modern Times is a high-tech, futuristic, jazz-of-tomorrow fusion masterpiece. While many have used sequencers, throbbing synth-bass, and programmed percussion in a jazz context, to this day no one has done it better than this group on this album. Strong compositions, impassioned performances, and early DDD production are married to otherworldly yet urban atmospheres to create one of the best albums any of these distinguished players has ever appeared on.

Steps Ahead were always Mike Mainieri's group, and he is the only player to appear on every album. "Oops" and "Self Portrait" are classic Mainieri compositions: long-lined unforgettable melodies, loud/soft contrasts, quirky bridges, outstanding solos over synth splashes, and sudden endings. His two other songs on this album are a bit more eclectic. "Radio Active" is mostly programmed (special guest: Craig Peyton) and showcases Michael Brecker's multi-tracked licks and best soloing on the album. "Old Town" includes drumbox, gurgling synth loops, Tony Levin on the Chapman Stick, and Mainieri's marimba solo. Ubiquitous drummer Peter Erskine contributes the smooth "Now You Know" with guest (and future band member) Chuck Loeb on guitar, an exquisite Warren Bernhardt piano solo, and Brecker making a rare appearance on soprano sax. Brecker's only composition, "Safari", also features his soprano work before moving to the tenor and a brilliant Mainieri vibraphone solo. Bernhardt's "Modern Times" opens with intricate synth patterns and includes an Eddie Gomez bass solo that's almost drowned in the mix. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned here that while credited as a full band member, Gomez can only be heard on "Oops", "Modern Times", and "Now You Know". Not surprisingly, he has not appeared on another Steps Ahead album since.

While the shock of high-technology no doubt alienated some listeners, the gamble has paid off in that this album still sounds very, well, MODERN and contemporary over 30 years after its original release. Future Steps Ahead albums would never recapture the innovative, imaginative quality of Modern Times, and would add vocals and a revolving-door line-up that could never hold a candle to this original jazz "supergroup". If you're at all familiar with the players, Modern Times will provide a lifetime's worth of listening pleasure.

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Track listing:

1     Safari     6:58
2     Oops     6:20
3     Self Portrait     6:02
4     Modern Times     6:17
5     Radio-Active     8:49
6     Now You Know     6:25
7     Old Town     6:19

Personnel:

    Bass – Eddie Gomez
    Chapman Stick – Tony Levin (tracks: 7)
    Drums, Percussion, Electronic Drums [DMX] – Peter Erskine
    Guitar – Chuck Loeb (tracks: 6)
    Keyboards – Warren Bernhardt
    Synthesizer [Additional] – Michael Brecker (tracks: 1), Michael Mainieri* (tracks: 2, 3, 7)
    Synthesizer, Electronic Drums [DMX], Bass [Pro 1] – Craig Peyton (tracks: 5)
    Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone – Michael Brecker
    Vibraphone [Vibes], Marimba, Synthesizer [Synthi-vibe] – Mike Mainieri

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