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Weekend Extra: Steps Ahead, Still Ahead

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The modern jazz sub-genre called jazz fusion emerged in the 1960s, attracted a wide audience and received extensive radio air play through the second half of the twentieth century. The music combined elements of rhythm and blues, jazz, rock, funk and, often, time signatures that were challenging for both musicians and listeners. Fusion came in for criticism for traditionalists and purists. “Con-fusion, I call it,” the great bassist Gene Ramey once told me. Nonetheless, the category—like jazz itself—was flexible enough to accept everything from the soporific oatmeal music that for a time seemed to dominate top-forty radio to inventive groups like the Joe Zawinul-Wayne Shorter Weather Report and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Among other forward-looking musicians who succeeded in melding disparate or compatible forms into substantial music were Larry Coryell, Miles Davis, Jean-Luc Ponty, Santana, Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and, at his most coherent, Frank Zappa. In the 1980s the band that vibraharpist Mike Mainieri at first called Steps became Steps Ahead. At its peak, Steps Ahead consisted of Mainieri, saxophonist Michael Brecker (1949-2007), pianist Eliane Elias, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Peter Erskine. Here is their concert filmed in 1983 at Copenhagen’s Carlsberg Glyptotek. Members of the band and their friend Don Grolnick wrote the pieces. Each gets screen credit as his composition plays. This is a fine way to spend an hour of your weekend.

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