Steps Ahead and WDR Big Band Cologne ‘Steppin’ Out’ (Jazzline) 4/5

steps-aheadSteps Ahead are the brainchild of vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and were formed in 1979. The various incarnations of the band have been akin to a modern day version of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and among the star alumni have passed Michael Brecker, Eliane Elias, Pete Erskine, Eddie Gomez, Don Grolnick, Donny McCaslin and Rachel Z, plus guitarist Mike Stern, and in more recent times bassists Richard Bona and Etienne Mbappe. The latest band is no less creative with ex-Miles Davis group member Bill Evans on soprano and tenor saxophones and Steve Smith on drums.
This new studio album recorded in Cologne, Germany, features the extended brass of the WDR Big Band under the expert arrangements of conductor Michael Abene, and reprises some of the most memorable Steps’ original pieces over the years. From the self-titled 1983 album, ‘Pools’ is a lovely understated groove with tenorist Bill Evans and bassist Tom Kennedy operating in unison, and this writer warmed to the subtle use of the brass ensemble and a Wes Montgomery-esque solo from guitarist Chuck Loeb. Bop influences emerge on the big band brass plus vibes of, ‘Steppish’, which originally featured on the 1992 album, ‘Yin-Yang’. Interestingly, the earlier repertoire is given pride of place and from 1983’s ‘Modern Times’ project, ‘Self-portrait’ offers a more sensitive side to the band with flute and brass ensemble intro before a restrained funk-tinged electric bass enters. When Steps Ahead explore the inner side of a groove, there are few bands that can rival them, If there were to be one major stylistic influence on the band worth noting, then it might just be Weather Report and on ‘Oops’ the main themes stated by tenor and vibes comes across as just the kind of piece that Weather Report would have performed with a larger ensemble. A lesser known number, ‘Blue Montreux’, from a 1979 Arista All-Stars recording is a minor chord mid-tempo piece with a fine trumpet solo from WDR band member Ruud Breuls. Throughout the album there is excellent support from the WDR Big Band and conductor Michael Abene as well as Mike Mainieri deserve credit for creating such a well-integrated sound.

Extended liner notes from regular Downbeat contributor and jazz author Bill Milkowski round off a fine return to form from Steps Ahead and for those not already familiar with the band, this is the ideal way to sample what is a de facto overview of their career to date.

Tim Stenhouse