Steps Ahead: Smokin’ in the Pit

This 1980 Steps release with the band configuration preceding Steps Ahead is a freewheeling live romp, recorded at Japan’s Pit Inn, and an exciting showcase for drummer Steve Gadd, saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Eddie Gomez, and the late, great pianist Don Grolnick, as well as Mainieri himself. Lovingly re-assembled by Mainieri, the 2-CD set includes several alternate takes and unreleased tracks for hard-core fans to discover. For many, however, Smokin’ will appeal as a document of its time, and a chance to look in on the early days of some of today’s legends. The content itself highlights the sheer joy of a tight band in wild improv heaven: Grolnick’s keyboards spiraling wickedly in a mad, exhausting dance with Gadd on “Fawlty Tenors,” and Brecker’s swaggering lead on the unreleased swinging timing piece “Uncle Bob” are just a couple of the many highlights. Although the fusion feel of the time, as well as ’70s rock flavors (as on the fusion-meets-the-Doobies “Tee Bag”) are in evidence here, the level of exploration is also key. Where “Lover Man” showcases Mainieri in a dark take on straightahead jazz longing, “Song to Seth” pulls bluesy emotion into its light, music box texture.