Ahead …by some distance

Who: Steps Ahead

What: Reunion tour 2016

When: July 4th, 2016

Where: Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London

Hey, kill me, but I’m one of those irritating fools that likes to take a few photos at a concert but one of the downsides of Ronnie Scott’s is that they have an absolutely no snapshots rule. Now I wouldn’t want to be snapping away on a smart phone or with something that flashes in the artists’ eyes but a few memories enhances the experience for me.

On the other side of the balance, Ronnie Scott’s has an absolutely no talking during performance rule which suits me down to the ground. Now if we could get the waitresses to always adhere to that and stop bothering you for orders or to settle your tab until the show is finished then all would be great. Tonight, the waitress was really well-behaved too but it isn’t always that way.

It brings to mind an experience with one of the artists who is performing tonight – the Brazilian pianist, Eliane Elias.

It was a number of years ago and she was playing with her own trio at the Jazz Cafe. Now the Jazz Cafe is fine but it is a little conflicted. The crowd who come to see the show gather around the stage. At the back is a bar where those who just want to be with friends, and damn the musicians, sit sipping their drinks and chatting. Eliane didn’t like this and rebuked the chatter to little avail – and managed to come across a little like a prima donna in the negative sense and I have to confess I haven’t been back to see her live again.

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However, tonight’s show was a different matter. Mike Mainieri, vibraphonist, is very much the leader of Steps Ahead and having two more of my favourite musicians – Ms Elias and her husband, Marc Johnson back in Steps Ahead was a real bonus — and I hoped it would make Eliane a little more relaxed and help her resist being contentious with the audience. It worked a charm.

Also with the band were drummer, Billy Kilson who fills the muscular “Billy Cobham-type” role very nicely and Donnie McCaslin on sax who I’m less familiar with but who has worked with Gary Burton so knows what is needed to be in a band with a vibraphonist as a leader.

Now I don’t claim to be a Steps Ahead completist but the last release that I’m aware of is the double-disc live set from 1999 “Holding Together” which had the late Bob Berg on saxophone and Peter Erskine on drums. If that had been the footnote to their career, it would have served very nicely and putting a band back together is always a risk so would tonight mess with the legacy or enhance it?

Well, I’m coming down firmly with the latter and by some considerable distance.

Now it should be noted that all five on stage have played with Steps Ahead before, so this is no cobbled together rehash of a band. McCaslin appeared on the 1995 studio set “Vibe” and Kilson toured with them, behind the drum kit in 1993. So as Mike Mainieri was fond of saying tonight this was very much a band put together from the “alumni” of the band’s varied history even if Ms Elias has not appeared on a studio recording since 1983 and Johnson only on the aforementioned live release.

Like that last release, tonight’s set begins with the Elias composition “Bowing to Bud” which proves that Mainieri has lost none of his dexterity. After introducing the audience to the central melody, Mike is the first to solo with Marc Johnson accompanying him on a strutting bass. After an extended solo which never became dull, Mike Mainieri allowed Eliane to metaphorically take centre-stage with a bluesy riff and it was clear that whilst no-one was going to be restricted tonight, these two were going to lead the pack.

It is difficult to follow such stalwarts as Mike Brecker and Bob Berg in any band and whilst Donnie McCaslin showed that he was no slouch, he was the one member of this line-up who didn’t thoroughly persuade me. His reputation has gone up several notches since his prominent appearance on David Bowie’s final album but each solo tonight seemed, like the one here in “Bowing to Bud”, to occupy roughly the same territory and after some wanderings he flipped the solo work to Mr Kilson who handled his turn in the lead before we returned to the central melody.

“Bowing to Bud” occupied the band for some 15 minutes before they moved onto their second number, “Pools” a Don Grolnick composition. McCaslin and Johnson led the melody here and then once more the band stretched out for another extended workout. Donnie was the first to solo, his playing embodying a bracing escalation, bursting with urgency but never raging out of control. A great solo from Marc Johnson followed with Miss Elias accompanying him on a secondary riff which kept his work from sounding self-indulgent. There was another imaginative solo from Mainieri with Johnson keeping up a similar rhythm to the one he had just soloed on and Kilson providing a solid backbeat to keep things orderly. Then it was time for Mr McCaslin again, this time with a solo that occupied his instrument’s lower register. This band’s ability to return quickly to the central melody of the composition they have been exploring is one of their greatest assets and their respect for each other’s abilities shone through but the solos are allowed to expand but not so far that their relationship to the piece as a whole is forgotten.

Despite the fact that the second number was a Grolnick composition, there was less room for the piano. Perhaps this was because the third number that followed came from the studio album that Eliane recorded with Steps Ahead way back in the 80s and featured her extensively in a manner which was very reminiscent of the area that she frequents on her instrumental solo work. The other member of the band who was also on that studio set, Mainieri was next to solo and the whole audience were not only entranced by the music but also the visual display of Mike moving around the bars of his instrument whilst Elias provided a simple chordal backing to his experimental work which led back into the melody. McCaslin was much more reigned in, here, on his solo as he gave real echoes of the work that Brecker had done on the studio version that set the template for tonight’s rendition.

Aaron Copland was the inspiration for the not surprisingly titled “Copland” which came next. Kilson weighed in, in  the manner which is his forte, quite early in the performance of this one before some Eliane Elias’ piano and then some predictable noodling from McCalsin which took place over persistence renderings of the melody that Mainieri had achieved by borrowing 16 bars from Copland’s “Piano Sonata, 3rd movement” and which led to the composition in the first instance.

“B is for Butterfly” was another Elias composition and not surprisingly majored on Ms Elias’ piano work. The central theme was crafted by Eliane and featured some gentler work from Donnie McCaslin before Ms. Elias showed her melodic mastery of her instrument. Mainieri continued in this gentle mode with some lovely work which included some of the most charming moments of the night.

North America met Latin America in the final number which followed a few minutes taken by Eliane to wish Manieri a happy birthday and get the audience to join in a rendering of a familiar song. This being the 4th of July, there might have been time for these Americans to raise the subject of another anniversary especially as there were crowds of stars-and-stripes clad guys and gals outside waiting to get into a club on the other side of the street but perhaps wiser heads prevailed. Perhaps Steps Ahead just knew that they’d won a great triumph in this first show of six and didn’t want anything to hinder that. The final piece was yet another opportunity for the whole band to individually and collectively show off their chops. There would be no encore but one suspects the wiser members of the audience had already bought their tickets for the second house.

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