In its early incarnations, Steps Ahead was an ongoing concern for founder/vibraphonist Mike Mainieri. The original lineup, called simply Steps, featuring saxophonist Michael Brecker, pianist Don Grolnick, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Steve Gadd, had a regular New York club residence in the late '70s before recording its first three albums for a Japanese label. Personnel would gradually shift throughout the '80s, but in recent years it's become something of a revolving door, with the lineup for each tour often differing significantly from the previous one.
Sometimes the group is electricas with this summer's tour, which includes Brecker, guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Richard Bona, and drummer Steve Smithother times acoustic. Captured in concert during a '99 European tour, the all-acoustic Holding Together brings together pianist Eliane Elias, double-bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Peter Erskinein addition to being a strong showcase for the considerable talent and power of saxophonist Bob Berg, who sadly passed away in '02 at the age of 51. While each edition of Steps Ahead offers something different, the pure chemistry and fun evident on this two-hour double-disc set makes it one of the strongest lineups in years.
Along with its fitting tribute to Berg, it's great to see the band continuing to play pieces by Grolnickin this case the funky "Pools," originally recorded on its '83 Elektra debut, Steps Ahead, and the harder-swinging "Uncle Bob," a staple from the early Steps repertoire. Grolnick passed away in '96 of cancer, and while he was sadly under-acknowledged by the larger listening public, amongst musicians his talents as a pianist, composer, arranger, producer, and musical director were held in high regard and demand.
Referencing familiar songs through direct quotation during a solo is a long-standing jazz tradition dating back at least as far as saxophonist Dexter Gordon's work in the '50s, and Berg, Mainieri, and Elias find entertaining ways to liberally inject them throughout the set, where everyone gets the opportunity to improvise at lengthall but two tracks clock in at well over ten minutes.
That everyone in the band has worked together often over the years in a variety of contexts is what makes the album sparkle with energy and vivid interplay. Erskine and Johnson provide the kind of rock-solid anchor and unerring groove that still manages to retain a loose fluidity. Elias' Latin roots are in clear evidence on her composition "The Time is Now," but so are her broader stylistic concerns.
It's hard to believe that Mainieri is nearing seventy. While he and Gary Burton emerged on the scene at the same time, Burton's career has somewhat eclipsed his, which is unfortunate because Mainieri has always been equally innovative and arguably more contemporary in his embrace of technology.
With a six-CD box set of live Steps performances from the past thirty years in the works for a fall release, Holding Together more than whets the appetite. Vigorous yet richly nuanced, it's a live album that's the next best thing to being there.