On initial airing, veteran keyboardist Jeff Lorber’s latest sounds suspiciously like something you might hear on the phone while waiting for an insurance claim to be processed. But give this music a little more time than however long it takes for the next operator to become available and greater intricacies of texture and groove reveal themselves. The fourth collaboration between Lorber and bassist Jimmy Haslip since they decided to revive the long-dormant Fusion band name in 2010, Step It Up leans heavy on funk, dialing down the rock overtones of its predecessor, 2013’s Hacienda. Melodies are boppish and David Mann’s horn arrangements nod to the swing era, but steady backbeats and glossy production root these 11 tracks firmly in ’70s electric jazz-the kind of stuff Lorber played in his first Fusion era.
Lorber and Haslip (the sole constants here among a revolving crew of session aces that includes saxophonist Gary Meek, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta) acquit themselves admirably throughout. Haslip’s basslines manage to anchor the compositions while remaining bubbly and pliable. And Lorber is consistently incisive, whether he’s tossing spooky Minimoog interpolations into the outro of “Get Up,” stoking the rhythm with McCoy Tyner-esque block chords on “Fire Spirit” or engaging in high-velocity Fender Rhodes action on “Soul Party.” Two of Haslip’s former Yellowjackets compadres shine in cameo roles: saxophonist Bob Mintzer graces “Mustang” with some striking chromatic cascades, while guitarist Robben Ford effortlessly combines the bluesy and the abstract-truthy on “Deep Green.”
Step It Up‘s sequencing is questionable-“Soul Party” would have made a better closing statement than the enigmatic title track, for example-but that’s a minor quibble. If the folks at your insurance company use this album for their hold music, you should relish their hipness.