Review: Steps Ahead at Ronnie Scott's

They played the timeless Pools but otherwise, says Dave Jones, the Steps Ahead reunion at Ronnie's was no exercise in nostalgia, new material refreshing Mainieri's distinctive and popular formula

Vibraphonist Mike Mainieri belies his age, both in appearance and on-stage demeanour; he seemed to be enjoying his gig with all the enthusiasm of an emerging young jazz player. In fact, during Monday night’s early set at Ronnie’s it was time for a rendition of Happy Birthday, led by the band, for Mainieri’s 78th birthday. You could easily be forgiven for striking a few decades off that total.

However, there’s no substitute for experience in jazz and Mainieri (pictured right, recording his new album Steppin' Out with the WDR Big Band Cologne) has plenty of that. It showed in his seemingly effortless delivery of complex themes and solos. It was quite something to experience this from a ringside seat, which was rather like sitting in the middle of the band, getting the onstage sound more than that projected by the PA and witnessing at close hand all the semiotics and obvious enjoyment in playing amongst the musicians.

It was another reunion gig of a band originating in the 1980s, and there’ve been quite a few of those in recent years. But this one was different from the rest. Yes, it was again a case of one or two original/early members of a band (Mainieri and Elaine Elias in this case, who arguably provided the highlights) surrounded by others who arrived later, but their approach was something of a surprise in that most of the material wasn’t from the earlier Steps Ahead catalogue.

Yes, Mainieri counted in the late Don Grolnick’s memorable and timeless Pools, but that was largely it of the old tunes; on some level this was disappointing because of the quality of that material. However, the chosen repertoire, including recent compositions by current band members, seemed to suit the new line-up particularly well and they came across more as a new band than reunion line-up. It wasn’t about nostalgia and in many ways the gig was all the better for that.

The animated Billy Kilson on drums ensured that Pools was at least as funky as the original and throughout the gig his interaction with the rest of the band, particularly with Elias on piano, propelled the energetic and detailed sound. Donny McCaslin on tenor sax made the occasional nod to original band member Michael Brecker, but only fleetingly, using the remaining time to very effectively carve his own niche, albeit with a little less gravitas than his predecessor, but Brecker's are big and highly distinctive boots to fill, if your intention is to fill them.

Mainieri’s compositional nod to Aaron Copland saw him introduce some MIDI triggered additional sounds, but in a subtle way, and in between the initial and closing theme Elias interjected the most dirty, bluesy, funky, hard-attack piano playing, supplying much of the band’s energy that way. Her lyrical and delicate theme B Is For Butterfly offered brief contrast before developing a Latin groove with more hard-attack piano in a melodic solo which was part single line, part chordal. In an age with perhaps too much overly subtle piano playing, it’s good to hear a pianist who can play with a jazz wrist-attack when needed, as well as offering a lighter touch. The piano is, after all, a percussion instrument.

The long Latin/swing closer featured the wonderful Marc Johnson on bass, with his extended riff-based and fluent solo, followed by Kilson’s quick nod to Elvin Jones and brief exchange with McCaslin, and then finally the out-theme, using (like most of the other themes) a unison combination of vibes, sax and piano.

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