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Mike Mainieri: Man Behind Bars

John Kelman By

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Seventh Avenue South and the Emergence of Steps Ahead

It was an especially fertile time for music and for live performance. There was so much cross-pollination amongst musicians that it was almost a full-time occupation to keep track of who was playing with whom and on what sessions. The Breckers had opened Seventh Avenue South, a club which, from 1977-1987, provided an important breeding ground for new projects. One of the longest-lasting and most important groups to emerge from Seventh Avenue was Steps Ahead, a group that began as a collaborative effort but, over the years, ultimately became Mainieri's flagship vehicle. Initially named just Steps until a naming conflict with a pop group forced it to become Steps Ahead, the group later released albums that weighed heavily in the arena of fusion and electro-centric jazz, but began as something else entirely. "It was basically the Mike Maineri Quintet," says Mainieri. "I asked Gadd, Gomez, [Don] Grolnick and Mike [Brecker] if they wanted to play at the club. I had written some music—for Love Play and some newer stuff—and we also played some straight-ahead bebop stuff. It started developing a pretty ridiculous crowd; there were huge line-ups of people waiting to get in."

Mike Mainieri / L'Image Steps Ahead, 2009, from left: Richard Bona, Mike Stern, Bill Evans Steve Smith, Mike Mainieri

But while Steps was acoustic and funky, Mainieri's fingers were in other pies as well. "I was also playing in a more electric group with Warren [Bernhardt], [Bob] Mintzer, [Omar] Hakim and either Eddie [Gomez] or Marcus [Miller]," Mainieri continues, "that played music from Wanderlust."

But it was Steps that got recorded first—albeit in Japan. "There was a woman who recorded the band with Gadd," explains Mainieri, "which was funkier; she was doing radio shows in Japan, and invited us to record. I couldn't record as the Mainieri Quintet because I was signed to Warner Bros. So that's why we made a different band name. Stupidly, we could've released the album [Smokin' in the Pit, first released in 1980 by Nippon Columbia in Japan] here, but we didn't own the rights."

Mainieri also recorded the electric group that played at Seventh Avenue—Mintzer, Bernhardt, Gomez and Hakim—but that album wouldn't see the light of day until 1996, when he released it on his own NYC Records label as the Mike Mainieri Quintet, Live at Seventh Avenue South. Despite the differing approaches of the two groups, there was plenty of common ground. One only has to look at the track listings of Smokin' in the Pit and Live at Seventh Avenue South, to find both groups playing Mainieri's up-tempo "Tee Bag" (for keyboardist Richard Tee), the funky "Sara's Touch" and the more-balladic "Song for Seth."

With Steps selling plenty of records in Japan and playing there to thousands of people, Mainieri continued to fight the good fight in the US, releasing the sadly overlooked Wanderlust (Warner Bros., 1981), an eclectic album that, coming as it did on the cusp of the neo-con movement in the early 1980s, never found the audience it deserved. "When I did Love Play, there was a single released as well," says Mainieri. "I met with Clive [Davis], and he wanted me to be more commercial, more R&B, more smooth jazz. I actually sang on a tune that they put out as a single from Love Play; it was kind of embarrassing. Here I am on the jazz subsidiary of Arista, and I get a call from Clive Davis, who didn't really care who was on the jazz side of it. He said, 'Just don't lose any money,' and suddenly it's playing on the radio, and he's like, 'Who is this?'

"I'll never forget the meeting with him," Mainieri continues. "We sat down and he said, 'Here's what I want you to do, what the cover is gonna look like, and I want it to be R&B-ish.' I said, 'Clive, you don't even know what I play.' He said, 'Of course, you play the xylophone, right?' And that was it for me. I went with Tommy [Lipuma] at Warner Bros. and made Wanderlust. Tommy was under pressure at that time, and he left Warner Bros.; I signed with him and then he started his own label at A&M, and that's when I made The Cat and the Hat (A&M, 1979), with Ben Sidran. Tommy was in business for about a year-and-a-half and then he went back to Warner Bros. Wanderlust simply didn't have a niche; it didn't fit in anywhere. I always wanted my albums to be eclectic, but that didn't go down with the labels back then. They wanted horns on it and I said, 'No, no.' Ultimately, I was very proud of Wanderlust, but it was just too eclectic. Still, it was the disc I was trying to make over the previous 15 years or so. The record company just didn't get it."

Mike Mainieri / Arista All StarsLess overlooked were the two albums that Mainieri released as part of the Arista All- Stars in 1978—Blue Montreux (Arista, 1978) and Blue Montreux II (Arista, 1978). In addition to the core group of uptown stars—Mainieri, Michael and Randy Brecker, Steve Khan, Tony Levin and Steve Jordan—guitarist Larry Coryell guests on several tracks. "Most people knew me from Blue Montreux, says Mainieri. "It was kind of an inside album that seemed to influence some people; I remember Joe Locke used to come hear us. I put the band together with Jordan, and a lot [of the players] were on Arista. I'd played with Jordan in the studio, and had put together an album with [guitarist] Kazumi Watanabe that sold 300,000 records in Japan.

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