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Mike Mainieri: Man Behind Bars

John Kelman By

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Mike MainieriSynthi-Vibes and The New Sting

Stylistically, Blue Montreux ran the gamut from Brecker Brothers material like the fiery "Rocks," with an equally burning solo from Coryell, to the title track from Love Play, a lyrical piece that also featured Mainieri's electric and synth vibes, perhaps the first vibraphone-driven synth on record, though it actually first showed up on Love Play. "The back cover of Love Play is me lying on it. It was an instrument built by a friend of mine who was living up in Woodstock," Mainieri explains. "He brought this little suitcase synthesizer called EMS, as big as a computer. It had a painted keyboard on it that was powered by static electricity from your body. It had dials and oscillators, and I was looking at it because this guy was messing around with electronic equipment.

"I said to him, 'Imagine if we could build something like this that looked like a vibraphone,'" Mainieri continues. "So we went out to the hardware store. But it started getting complicated; we went to Amherst College and it became a project in the department up there. I said, 'I want a five octave instrument.' It was huge, but light; there was nothing inside of it. We took the EMS synth apart and put the guts inside the synth-vibe, so when I put it on a rack I could turn around and play it. I started playing with my hands, and I realized I could buy a metallic cloth that was used in mufflers so I could play with mallets. I spray-painted the mallets with paint, and they triggered the electric pulses from my body, so I could play with mallets.

"I'd take to the synth-vibe to Europe with me," Mainieri concludes, "but then I came back from one of the Montreux tours and someone walked away with it at JFK [Airport]. The funny thing about it was that I eliminated the EMS and was using a Minimoog with me, so whoever stole it opened it up, tried to play it, but probably ended up using it as firewood."

While Steps—now Steps Ahead—released its first albums in Japan, Mainieri secured a deal with Elektra Musician, a Warners subsidiary that emerged in the early 1980s and run by Bruce Lundvall. Steps Ahead, released in 1983, was the group's by now overdue North American debut, and it retained the acoustic yet funky flavor of earlier albums, despite the presence of Mainieri's electric and synth-vibes, which created a definitive, sometimes floating and ethereal quality. By this time the group's original lineup—Mainieri, Michael Brecker, Don Grolnick, Eddie Gomez and Steve Gadd—was long gone, and membership would gradually become something of a revolving door group, with Mainieri's leadership the singular defining characteristic. For Steps Ahead, Eliane Elias was the first of many pianists to fill the chair vacated by Grolnick, and drummer Peter Erskine was already in place from Paradox (Nippon Columbia, 1982). But the group's acoustic focus didn't last long, and following Modern Times (Elektra Musician, 1984), on which Bernhardt assumed keyboard duties and additional guests provided keyboard sequencing and drum machines, Steps Ahead became increasingly electrified.

Mike Mainieri / Steps AheadThe aptly titled Magnetic (Elektra Musician, 1986) was a significant departure, not just in its greater reliance on electric instruments, but in its more decidedly fusion nature. The opening "Trains," in fact, would have fit easily onto a Weather Report album of the time, no surprise given Steps Ahead's bassist for the album was Victor Bailey, who was also a member of the Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter} super group, and Erskine was a WR alum from its glory days with bassist Jaco Pastorius. Still, unlike Zawinul's "everybody solos and nobody solos" ethos, Steps Ahead was still about muscular soloing, though it was largely left to Brecker, with Mainieri focusing more on synth-vibes and keyboards. There were even vocals on the album, with Dianne Reeves singing "Magnetic Love," a drum-machine driven track more suited for the dance floor than the concert hall.

With Erskine leaving New York for the west coast, Mainieri recruited Steve Smith for a tour that was later documented on the video-then-CD, Live in Tokyo 1986, another first in its inclusion of a guitarist as a full-on band member, Mike Stern. "That was balls-to-the-wall electric drums," Mainieri says. "I had like five synths and that's when Stern joined the band, we went to Japan and played in front of thousands, and then the band broke up, that was it. It was time for Mike [Brecker] to make a solo album, he hadn't done that yet, and I was glad he was striking up his own thing. Mike Stern hooked up with [Bob] Berg, everyone went their own way, and nothing happened again until I built a recording studio. That's when I asked Steve Smith to play, and I met Bendik."

Bendik, being Bendik Hofseth, a Norwegian saxophonist who was part of the same scene that included up-and-comers Nils Petter Molvær and Eivind Aarset, and established ECM artists like Arild Andersen. "It was the weirdest thing," Mainieri explains. "Maureen Thompson called me to write some jazz TV commercials. She was going out with a Norwegian drummer, and had produced Bendik's demo. They gave it to me, because of the studio I now had. I had this demo and it was this guy singing, and I thought, I really liked the tunes. But I said, 'Who's playing saxophone?' and they said, 'Everything, that's him.'

"I was amazed because everything sounded real," Mainieri continues. "The technology was amazing. I swore the drums sounded real, the only other person that played on it was Eivind Aarset—I love him, he's a genius. I was about to make a Steps album, so I flew him in from Norway after hearing the demo. Bendik sounded kind of like Jan Garbarek; he flew in and did the album [N.Y.C. (Intuition, 1989)], and we signed and managed him as an artist and got him a record deal with Sony. The first album he did was called IX (Sony, 1991); it was all those songs from the demo. We did the album, Sony signed Bendik, and it was a shame because he only made one record with them. Someone happened to walk past the office while he was playing the disc, and said, 'Lets make him the next Sting.'

"And the next thing you know, they're playing him at big A&R meetings, and they're saying, 'This is the greatest thing.' They put a guitar in his hands, made a video with girls dancing...and Norwegians are humble cats, all he wanted was to bring his band over. They wouldn't bring his band over [to the United Stats] but they took him to strip bars and had like thousands of dollars worth of wine. They hooked him up to play 'The Star Spangled Banner' at an NBA game. Here's this guy from Norway, he doesn't know it, so he goes in, and there's like 25,000 people, the place is packed, he says, 'I'm surrounded by these black guys who are seven feet tall.' He forgot how the song went, so he just started playing it over again, and some guy walked over to him, patted him on the head and he was booed out of there. He went back to New York with his tail between his legs. It was too bad. But we did go on tour with that band in Europe, with Jeff Andrews or Victor Bailey, and Steve Smith, Rachel Z. and Jimi Tunnell, a guitarist.

Mike Mainieri / Steps Ahead

The new incarnation of Steps Ahead and N.Y.C. did well for Mainieri and the group. "The first record was for Intuition Records, a German label, and was kind of a hit there. There was one tune that was played on the radio incessantly, they played it like crazy. It sold about sixty or seventy thousand, and Steps typically never sold more than 20. That band toured Europe and the States for about five years. We played the hell out of Europe. They loved that band. Tunnell was singing, Bendik sang some too, until we hit Rome, where they almost rioted because they expected Brecker to be there.

"It was very Italian," Mainieri continues, "they were expecting a jazz band! We come out and we start playing this rock tune. We're in this huge tent, and I start hearing whistles, which over there means, 'This really sucks!' Then our bassist steps up and starts singing a love song, and they went crazy, throwing stuff at us. We escaped with our lives, as they were rocking the bus back and forth; Bendik said, 'Tonight I lost my virginity!' But we made it through that and played all over Europe. I met all the European cats, and they were all young guys; I went up to Eivind [Aarset] and said, How do you do that; what are those knobs?'"

The Norwegian Posse and Northern Lights

Mainieri would ultimately recruit Aarset and the "Norwegian Posse" for Northern Lights (NYC Records, 2006), an album that mixed Mainieri originals, a couple of standards and some open-ended improv into a compelling disc that demonstrates, perhaps more than many, just how open-minded Mainieri continues to be, even as he was approaching his seventies. His admiration for Aarset goes even further. "He's an amazing musician, a very deep player. I had a very weird arrangement of [John Coltrane's] 'Giant Steps' that I was gonna record, but I never got to it. I said to Eivind, 'I'm gonna do this one Coltrane piece, you don't have to play on it.' Which was very presumptuous of me—that he couldn't blow on it. He started playing it, like 'You mean this?' I was thinking, 'Look at this motherfucker!' His language is so deep. And Bugge [Wesseltoft] is unbelievable. He's got it all. They just choose not to do it, it's not their tradition.

"[Recording] 'Nature Boy' wasn't even my idea. [Live Sampler] Jan [Bang] got into a nice groove with it, and we start playing the tune, and then Nils Petter started singing it. It went on for 20 minutes; Nils Petter sang the whole thing and then played trumpet, and he said, 'Don't put that on there!' [laughs] That's how that tune wound up on the record."

Contrary to purists who look at someone like Pål "DJ Strangefruit" Nyhus with a certain amount of derision, Mainieri is open enough to realize that he's not just an incredibly musical turntablist, but one whose knowledge of the music goes far and wide. "This guy has like ears like an elephant," Mainieri enthuses, and continues to heap praise on Jan Bang. "Jan was there with us, he programmed a little of the stuff and was building this treasure chest of sounds from a festival we'd done, with the finale in a church, with Jan using everything we had played and performed."

As well-conceived as Northern Lights sounds and feels, it was largely built from the ground up in the studio. "I brought one tune that was fully orchestrated, called 'Vertigo,' and everything else was done in the studio. I wanted to do a Björk tune; I had the melody and changes. Everything else on the disc we jammed, which was a really good way for me to work with the band. I was going to do another Northern Lights record, because we're touring in February [2010], but I wasn't feeling well. Still, [keyboardist] Bugge [Wesseltoft] likes to construct a lot of things on the spot, have a sketch and then start building, so I'm looking forward to the next gig, which is gonna be with Bugge, Bendik, and either [drummer] Paolo [Vinaccia] or Auden [Kleive]. The Norwegians are very family- oriented, which is a great thing. To have Bugge commit to the tour is a big deal."

That artists like Wesseltoft draw huge crowds in Europe and farther abroad but can barely draw flies here, seems a poor reflection on a somewhat xenophobic American scene. "Bugge came here last year [2008]," says Mainieri. "And he said, 'Where can I play?' He wound up playing a little joint in the East Village, and there were like eight people there. I brought friends and they loved it but there was no one there. There were a few Norwegians there at the bar. Pretty soon, it'll be like, 'Come, listen and I'll pay you $85. There are so many European bands: some great straight-ahead players in Italy; Germany is a totally different scene with DJs and other interesting music, different camps. And here, there are so many kids coming out of conservatory, and where do they go? A lot wind up becoming teachers, and still there are more students coming up. I've tried to hip others to what's happening in Norway, and they go, 'What the fuck is that? It's noise, man!' I think there's something more organic going on there; either you get it or you don't."


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