Cofounded by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and saxophonist Michael Brecker in 1979, Steps and later Steps Ahead saw their bold blend of acoustic-electric fusion and modern jazz draw listeners for the next 25 years or so. Mainieri provided the catchy, steady-grooving tunes, and the group became a launching pad for a long list of top-rank players, many of whom subsequently gained even higher profiles as leaders of their own projects.
Steppin’ Out might be called a reboot, with the vibraphonist joined by various members of the Steps/Steps Ahead universe: saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarist Chuck Loeb (who died in July), bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Steve Smith. Even better, the five are accompanied by the WDR Big Band Cologne for new versions of the band’s tunes, and the familiar material comes off as reinvigorated rather than simply retrofitted. (True story: Way back in 1963, Mainieri and WDR arranger/conductor Michael Abene, a pianist, played a six-week stint in Las Vegas with Buddy Rich’s sextet.)
There are plenty of high points, including “Oops,” with vibes paired with the big band’s horns at the start before the tune switches over to a stair-stepping chordal pattern. It then cycles through other sections before eventually leading into a typically probing solo by the leader and a beautifully paced two-tenor cutting contest between Evans and the WDR’s Paul Heller. Don Grolnick’s airy, syncopation-spiked “Pools,” the opener and one of only two pieces here not penned by Mainieiri, has Evans and Kennedy in unison on the tricky melody line, and opens up for extended solos by most of the group.
“Steppish” shifts gears rapidly at the start before heading into hard-swinging terrain, while the quiet ballad “Self Portrait” opens with a hymnlike section sounded by the woodwinds, and “Beirut,” credited to Mainieri, Peter Erskine and three late musicians (Brecker, Loeb and Victor Bailey) is dominated by Evans’ urgent soprano work and tinged with Middle Eastern elements. “Trains,” appropriately enough, closes the disc with churning rhythms, a wandering melody and a bracing solo from Loeb. After all these years, Steps Ahead has maintained its sense of adventure and forward motion. Nice ride.