Steps Ahead: Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-Times

Any budding sax player of the ’80s had to have been checking out Michael Brecker, devouring 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 1984 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…

 

ECM Goes Rock: David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury

Cloud_About_MercuryECM Records, released October 1987

8/10

The late ‘80s was a great period for avant-garde guitar playing with the likes of Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Arto Lindsay, Fred Frith, Dave Fiuczynski, Stevie Salas, Sonny Sharrock, Skip McDonald, Robert Quine, Steve Vai and Bill Frisell laying down some seriously mind-bending tones and textures.

Cloud About Mercury, David Torn’s second ECM solo album, definitely put him into the same league. Though just as influential as many of the aforementioned guitarists, he has never really gained as much of a public profile despite occasional solo albums and stellar sideman work with the likes of David Bowie and David Sylvian.

My dad used to get sent a lot of music for his work and I vaguely remember him passing Cloud About Mercury onto me, knowing I was a big fan of early-’80s King Crimson. My muso mates and I quickly grew to like the album’s perverse musical concepts and silly song titles. With a superstar avant-rock rhythm section of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin on board, it came on a bit like the follow-up to Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair, but also offered a strikingly original take on jazz/rock.

I recall a contemporary review of Cloud About Mercury in Q magazine which said something like: ‘Torn luxuriates in the silence for a bit…and then goes KRAOOOOOOW!’ But in its louder moments, CAM is definitely one to annoy the neighbours. Torn can certainly make a racket. His Trans-Trem guitar enables him to create some very novel effects and original lines, with micro-tones and Middle Eastern flavours, and you can really get lost in his ambient loops.

CAM is also a very uncharacteristic ECM album, being much more in-your-face and rockist in its mixing and playing than most of the label’s output. In fact, it’s not really fair to judge it as a ‘jazz’ album at all. But sometimes Torn seems much happier playing solo or in duet with Isham; his superb rhythm section is underused, and the tunes rely too heavily on one-chord improvisations. Consequently Bruford and Levin sound somewhat muted and can’t quite bring the sort of forward-motion dynamics so crucial to jazz/rock.

Torn toured extensively to promote CAM (but presumably not London or I surely would have been there…) with ex-Japan bass player Mick Karn replacing the unavailable Tony Levin. An excellent decision, both musically and commercially. The band sounded fantastic and the tunes really came to life. Torn and Isham then accompanied David Sylvian on the ‘In Praise Of Shamen’ world tour which I caught at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1988.

Two quick questions to end, prompted by a discussion with my brother about Torn the other day: why isn’t there any music like this around these days? Or is there?