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On The Corner Masthead


May 12, 2017 | by Rusty Aceves

Steps Ahead circa 1982: (L-R) Peter Erskine, Eliane Elias, Eddie Gomez, Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri

Pianist, vocalist and composer Eliane Elias reunites with a band that played a pivotal part in her early career, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri’s Steps Ahead, with a band including bassist Marc Johnson, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, and drummer Peter Erskine.

In the wake of the so-called “fusion revolution” that upended the jazz world in the early 1970s, many artists took the idea behind the blend of jazz, rock, funk and global influences pioneered on such raw stylistic collisions as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency! and homogenized it into a soulless play for cash during the rise of disco, or further watered down the concept to a streamlined and shapeless mix eventually dubbed “smooth jazz” in the 1980s. For other musicians, the breaking of genre barriers and the availability of new technologies offered liberation from expectation and offered tantalizingly fresh areas for expression. With its mix of studio-honed chops, expansive compositions, powerful grooves, au courant use of electronics, and roots as an acoustic ensemble, Steps Ahead assuredly falls into the latter category.

Begun in 1979 by vibraphonist and composer Mike Mainieri as “Steps,” the steadily changing and evolving post-fusion band later called Steps Ahead grew out of loose jam sessions at New York’s Seventh Avenue South, a club famed as a musician’s hangout owned by saxophonist Michael and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Two Japan-only releases on Nippon Columbia with founding members Mainieri, Michael Brecker, pianist Don Grolnick, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Steve Gadd were dedicated to a muscular but decidedly swinging brand of hard bop delivered with a rock band’s swagger, and a third, 1982’s live session Paradox with Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine replacing Gadd, expanded into more exploratory areas with electronic textures becoming more prominent.

ImageThe band showed a finely focused identity on their domestic debut for Elektra Musician, 1983’s Steps Ahead, which featured the young Eliane Elias in place of Grolnick, making her recorded debut as a pianist. The album is a powerhouse of evocative melodies and deft ensemble passages, with Elias acquitting herself with a mastery belying her age, matching Mainieri’s effects-laden vibe runs with spit-second precision. The record introduced music long associated with the band, including Grolnick’s grooving “Pools” and Mainieri’s tropically-minded “Islands.”

Elias departed following the release of Steps Ahead, and after 1984’s follow-up Modern Times with Warren Bernhard taking over keyboard duties, the early lineup would fracture completely. A jaw-dropping succession of major jazz artists filed through the band throughout the 80s and 90s, including keyboardists Kenny Kirkland, Dave Kikoski, and Rachel Z, saxophonists Bob Berg, Donny McCaslin, and Bob Mintzer, guitarists Mike Stern and Wayne Krantz, bassists Daryl Jones, Victor Bailey, and Richard Bona, and drummers Steve Smith and Clarence Penn among literally dozens of others.

A reunion in 1999 brought Elias back into the fold along with Mainieri, Erskine, saxophonist Bob Berg standing in for Michael Brecker and bassist Marc Johnson in place of Gomez. Their superb live recording from that tour, Holding Together, was released in 2003. For her performance with Steps Ahead on 5/14, Elias joins Mainieri, Erskine, Johnson, and saxophonist Bob Sheppard in place of the late Bob Berg.