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The ‘70s proved to be a challenging time for jazz in general. As the last strains of progressive rock gave way to the decade end’s disco boon, jazz found itself in an uncertain position. Fusion had seemed to play itself out and acoustic music was becoming as rare as those proverbial “hen’s teeth”. As the ‘80s approached, Wynton Marsalis would emerge as a voice in support of refurbishing the jazz tradition. Also a part of this milieu, the group Steps (later to be dubbed Steps Ahead) would turn their regular jam sessions at Michael Brecker’s NYC jazz club, Seventh Avenue South, into a forum for presenting contemporary jazz in a well-versed and sagacious manner.
It would be a few years before American audiences would catch wind of Steps and its musical modus operandi due to the fact that their early work was released only in Japan on Nippon Columbia. The brainchild of vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, the initial incarnation of the band included Brecker, the late pianist Don Grolnick, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Steve Gadd. The group’s first Japanese release would be a live double album recorded in Japan. Smokin’ In the Pit (also available from NYC Records) soon became a much sought-after item in the States and was then followed up by the studio date Step By Step. This 1979 album is reissued here in the United States for the first time ever and while short on duration it more than makes up for things by presenting a heady mix of straight ahead and fusion tendencies. Particularly notable is Mainieri’s “Bullet Train,” which also appeared on his own obscure Warner Bros. release Wanderlust.
The last Japanese album for Nippon Columbia from 1981, Paradox, finds Peter Erskine spelling Gadd at the drums. Recorded live at Seventh Avenue South, the group stretches out over seven lengthy cuts, including a much longer alternate take of “The Aleph.” This might be one of the group’s best recorded moments. The range of material is first-class, from the swing of “NL 4” to the shuffle beat that opens “Take a Walk.” Brecker sports the robust and strapping sound that made him the darling of his leagues of fans during the period and Mainieri’s vibe work is marked by a strong and juicy vibrato. Erskine is also much better suited to the characteristic twists and hairpin turns that marked this group’s exceptional writing.
It wouldn’t be until 1983 that the American audience at large would hear the mainstream excellence that marked what had then become Steps Ahead, with another personnel change pending in the replacement of Eliane Elias for Grolnick. Three well-received albums for Elektra would then lead to Mainieri’s experimentations in new areas beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say, the music contained on these two discs has held up extremely well and it fills in the missing gaps of Steps’ modest catalog.
Disc One- Step By Step:Uncle Bob, Kyoto, Belle, Bullet Train, Six Persimmons (36:47)
Disc Two- Paradox:NL 4, The Aleph, Patch of Blue, Four Chords, Take a Walk, Nichka, The Aleph (alternate take) (69:29)
Personnel: Mike Mainieri- vibes, Michael Brecker- tenor saxophone, Don Grolnick- piano, Eddie Gomez- bass, Steve Gadd- drums (on disc 1), Peter Erskine- drums (on disc 2)