Jazz, Clicks And Synths: Steps Ahead’s Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-TimesElektra/Asylum, released July 1984

7/10

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Any budding sax player of the ’80s was learning Michael Brecker licks. Jazzers loved his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord. Funk and pop fans loved him because he could play absurdly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and also solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes.

He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl. It has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s works like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G.

And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band was diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…

Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires: Second Sight

marc johnson

Released October 1987

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, November 1987?

8/10

In rock, the two-guitar setup is standard. But in jazz and fusion, not so standard.

Since 1987, there have been a number of two-guitar celebrity summits (such as Scofield/Metheny, Scofield/Frisell, Stern/Eric Johnson, Carlton/Ritenour etc) but ex-Bill Evans bassist Marc Johnson’s superb ECM solo albums, ’85’s Bass Desires and Second Sight, both featuring John Scofield and Bill Frisell, quite possibly started off the recent trend.

1987’s Second Sight was considered somewhat of a disappointment on its original release, but for me this is the superior album of the two.

I was a major Scofield fan when I bought it in ’87 but didn’t know Frisell’s name at all. I’m really glad it was this album which revealed his incredible playing to me. Some of the interplay between Frisell and Scofield is nothing less than miraculous, although one could hardly think of two more different guitarists in approach.

They leave each other space to play and at times even inadvertently double parts. The ever-reliable Peter Erskine slightly overplayed on the first Bass Desires album but here expertly marshals the material without ever being overbearing, and the compositions are so fresh, memorable and catchy.

Only the opening ‘Crossing The Corpus Callosum’ sounds like a studio jam session, but this is no ordinary jam; Scofield’s emotive bluesy cries dissolve into a fantastically-eerie Frisell ambient soundscape, leading the track inexplicably into David Lynch territory.

‘Small Hands’ and ‘Hymn For Her’ are shimmering, moving ballads, with the guitarists’ approaches meshing beautifully. ‘Sweet Soul’ is a soulful slow swinger full of fantastic Scofield soloing.

‘1951’ is a superb Frisell composition evoking Thelonious Monk’s best work. ‘Thrill Seekers’ simply swings like hell and features a classic Frisell fuzzbox solo. ‘Twister’ is great fun, Scofield’s affectionate ode to surf rock with some very funky bass and guitar interplay and a short drum solo almost as memorable as Ringo’s on Abbey Road.

As far as I know, the band toured Europe but never the UK. Would love to have seen them. The performance below is really special. No wonder Frisell is grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout.

Space-Age Muzak: Lyle Mays’ Street Dreams

lyle maysGeffen Records, released 1988

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, 1988

9/10

I was a fan of most things jazz/rock as a 16-year-old, scuttling off to HMV or Virgin in central London to buy the latest stuff by John McLaughlin, Mike Stern, Steps Ahead, John Scofield, Bireli Lagrene and Miles.

Whilst Pat Metheny was never a favourite, I dug American Garage and 80/81, and always had a soft spot for Lyle Mays’ keyboard playing. His 1987 debut album featured a fantastic band (Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, Billy Drewes, Alex Acuna and Nana Vasconcelos) and promised a lot for the future.

1988’s Street Dreams didn’t disappoint. It is to some extent a big-budget ‘vanity project’, full of guest appearances and experiments, but it’s all the better for that and virtually impossible to categorise. Recorded exclusively at the Power Station in New York, Street Dreams has the range and ambition of some key pop albums of the era – yup, this is jazz’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome… It also for the most part avoids the new-age sentimentality that Metheny is sometimes prone to.

lyle mays

I delved deeply into Street Dreams – it was a real Walkman album, creating a movie in one’s mind. To this day, I seldom listen to a tune in separation; I have to check out the whole thing in one sitting.

‘Feet First’ sounds like an outtake from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly with the vocals taken off (and features some classic Steve Gadd); ‘August’ and ‘Hangtime’ are superb tone poems featuring tasteful work from Frisell, Johnson and Peter Erskine; ‘Before You Go’ is space-age muzak with sprawling orchestrations out of the Claus Ogerman book, and ‘Possible Straight’ is cracking big-band jazz with some great drumming by Steve Jordan.

The title track is just bonkers and has to be heard to be believed. It takes in elements of prog rock, modern classical (with its brooding orchestra, gorgeous oboe and Reich-influenced marimba), New Age textures and a playful, Hermeto Pascoal-style Latin workout with Mays’s piano at its most Keith Jarrett-like.

Here’s part 3:

Compared to the sterility of most major-label jazz releases these days, Street Dreams still sounds pretty fresh, even if it is a touch lighter than what passes for jazz/rock or fusion in 2015. Lyle Mays’s solo career unsurprisingly never returned to this kind of ambitious project, moving to the piano trio format for 1993’s Fictionary, and he has never again been given the budget to repeat the Street Dreams formula. Shame.