White Elephant, Yogi Berra, and Men Behind Bars
Mike Mainieri Discusses 35 Years of Steps Ahead and More
In the 1970s, pioneering vibraphonist Mike Mainieri founded the jazz fusion group Steps Ahead as an outlet for contemporary sounds and experimental energy. The group eventually achieved global acclaim and became a premier launching pad for young artistic talent and fresh musical ideas.
The group’s 35th Anniversary tour, appeared at Birdland February 24th through 28th, featuring Mainieri on vibraphone along with pianist Eliane Elias, drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Marc Johnson, and saxophonist George Garzone.
In addition to the 35th Anniversary edition, Steps “alumni” include saxophonists Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Bob Berg, and Bill Evans; Pianists Don Grolnick, Kenny Kirkland, Rachel Z, and Joey Calderazzo; Guitarists Mike Stern, Steve Khan, Chuck Loeb, and Hiram Bullock; Bassists Eddie Gomez, Tom Kennedy, Daryl Jones, and Richard Bona; Drummers: Steve Gadd, Steve Smith, Billy Kilson, and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts; Vocalists Dianne Reeves, Bobby McFerrin, and many many more.
BL: How and why did you form Steps Ahead?
MM: In the mid-1960’s I met bassist Eddie Gomez and pianist Warren Bernhardt who were performing with (flutist) “Jeremy Steig and the Satyrs.” I joined Jeremy’s group shortly after and we became the backup band for the folk singer Tim Hardin. Around the same time, saxophonist Michael Brecker and drummer Steve Gadd were making appearances with a jam-session-big-band I formed called “White Elephant.”
(White Elephant’s evolution, members, and their interconnections, here.)
MM: I thought Eddie’s rhythmic conception and ability to play various genres of music would really work with Steve Gadd’s drumming. Also, Michael Brecker and I had both worked with pianist Don Grolnick on several recording sessions and loved his playing and writing. Originally we were billed as the Mike Mainieri Quintet. Michael Brecker, Don Grolnick, Eddie Gomez, Steve Gadd, and me.
BL: So you were already known, among musicians at least, as a band leader?
MM: Vibraphonists are usually forced to become bandleaders by necessity. Most groups utilize drums, bass, piano or guitar, and various reeds or brass, so I learned that lesson at an early age and formed my first trio when I was 12-years-old in 1950. In 1952 we appeared on the Paul Whiteman radio show as well as several other “children’s” television shows.
BL: Your first taste of show business…
MM: I also recall performing at a Bronx community center next to Yogi Berra. Athletes and performers would attend these affairs to raise money for us “poor kids.”
BL: So when did the Mike Mainieri Quintet become Steps Ahead?
MM: In 1977 we were really only appearing at a club the Brecker Brothers ran called “Seventh Avenue South.” We were approached by a Japanese promoter who offered us a three album recording contract to be exclusively distributed in Japan. I was under contract with a US label which prevented me from recording under my name so we collectively came up with the name “Steps.” The band then became a collective group.
BL: You traveled to Japan to record?
MM: We recorded a live double vinyl album entitled “Steps / Smokin’ in the Pit,” which was a nightclub in Tokyo. During the same week we also recorded a studio album, “Step by Step.”
BL: How were they received?
MM: “Smokin’ in the Pit” went Gold in Japan very suddenly. The band was quite a success but the records were not released worldwide.
BL: So you were “Big in Japan,” as they say. Were you able to gain any traction in New York?
MM: We recorded a third album, “Paradox,” live at the Breckers Brothers’ Seventh Avenue club, with Peter Erskine replacing Steve Gadd on drums. Like the first two releases, that album was only distributed in Japan. We remained virtually unknown as a group in the US and Europe.
BL: And you were still known as “Steps.”
MM: In 1980, we signed a worldwide deal with Electra Records but had to change the name of the band because a group in North Carolina had trademarked the name “Steps.” Hence, “Steps Ahead” was born, now with pianist Eliane Elias and drummer Peter Erskine in addition to Eddie Gomez, Mike Brecker, and me.
BL: The group’s history reads like a who’s-who-of-jazz. Do you see yourself as having an ear for talent?
MM: After I left the Buddy Rich quintet in 1964, I decided to remain in New York City. I became quite busy as a session player, arranger, and producer, which allowed me access to recording studios when they were dark. In the late 1960's I began inviting session musicians to evening jam sessions. Sometimes just a few cats would show up and other times there might be 20 or more players and singers. It was a very fertile musical experience.
BL: Were all those great players attracted to the music, the concept, What do you attribute it to?
MM: Several of us made our homes in Woodstock, New York, in the late 1960's. It further fed the breadth of genres with which we were all experimenting: folk, funk, straight ahead, and free-form music.
BL: So it was the proximity, living and working together…
MM: The interconnections of the band White Elephant were crucial. They also spawned the group “L’Image” with Gadd, Bernhardt, bassist Tony Levin, and guitarist David Spinozza — all Woodstockers — but other groups as well. “Dreams,” “Ars Nova,” “The Brecker Brothers Band,” and eventually, “Steps.”
BL: How did you decide who would tour to help you celebrate 35 years?
MM: Two of the original members of Steps Ahead were generous enough to make themselves available for this tour, Peter Erskine and Eliane Elias. Bassist Marc Johnson toured with Eliane, Peter, Bob Berg and I in 2000 and 2002 and his availability made the timing even more special. George Garzone and I have been performing together for several years. In fact, George, Peter and Marc also appeared on my solo album “An American Diary (The Dreamings) Volume Two.” George also recorded four solo albums for my label, NYC Records, and we have performed together as a duo.
(MM wanted to be sure we didn’t leave anyone out. In addition to those already mentioned, Steps Ahead’s history includes important contributions by Saxophonists Donny McCaslin, Alex Foster, Bob Sheppard, and Bendik Hofseth; Guitarists Jimi Tunnell, Bob Mann, and Bryan Baker; Pianists Warren Bernhardt and Dave Kikoski; Bassists Jeff Andrews, James Genus, Tony Levin, Anthony Jackson, Scott Colley, Larry Grenadier, Richie Goods, Etienne Mbpappe’ and Baron Browne; Drummers Rodney Holmes and Omar Hakim. —ed.)
BL: Let’s talk about the vibraphone. Two mallets or four?
MM: Most vibists utilize four mallets but prefer to play their solos with two mallets. Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson played with four mallets on occasion but the bulk of their work was with two mallets. Need I say more?
BL: I read somewhere that Gary Burton invented the four mallet technique but you and he are more or less contemporaries and both led influential groups contemporaneously, although he was in Boston and you were in NYC.
MM: Gary didn’t invent four mallet technique for the vibraphone but he did employ the “Burton grip” for four mallets. Red Norvo and Adrian Rollini, for example, were excellent four mallet vibraphonists who performed and recorded in the 1930's, 40's and 50's.
BL: Does every vibraphonist have a signature grip?
MM: There are several grips: The “traditional grip,” the (Gary) “Burton grip,” the (Leigh Howard) “Steven’s grip,” and I’d have to include “Joe Locke’s grip,” and the “Ed Saindon grip.”
BL: Can listeners appreciate the differences?
MM: The Burton grip primarily utilizes the outer right mallet to play melody and two mallet phrases whereas most other grips utilize the inner mallets for single note improvisation.
BL: Where do you fall on the Vibraphone-Mallet-Grip-Spectrum?
MM: I would say I’m a proficient four mallet vibraphonist but I prefer to play melody lines and solos with the inner mallets held like a drummer. I will also drop two of the four mallets — especially if a pianist is comping for me — and approach the instrument more like a horn player. My very unorthodox “Mainieri grip,” for four mallets, with the outer mallet between the pinky and ring finger, is shown in the Yogi Berra photo above. I’m still using it today.
BL: So it’s more of a continuum that developed over time.
MM: If I could, I would like to give a shout out to all of the “men behind bars” and their grips: Joe Locke, Stefon Harris, Steve Nelson, Warren Wolf, Tony Mecili; and some of the “older” cats, Emil Richards, Terry Gibbs, Roy Ayers, Dave Pike, Warren Chiasson, Dave Samuels, David Friedman; and those who’ve passed, Cal Tjader, Lem Winchester, Victor Feldman, Don Elliot, Gary McFarland, Teddy Charles, Eddie Costa, and Walt Dickerson.
BL: Sounds like quite a fraternity…
MM: And I know I’ve left some cats out. My apologies, I dig you too!
BL: What else are you up to?
MM: I’m happily married to singer/songwriter and harpist Dee Carstensen. We have a 14-year-old daughter and I also have two older sons and three older daughters who have all been incredibly supportive throughout the life of this artist’s ups and downs. I do a fair amount of touring for a 76-year-old and I’m finishing up a solo vibraphone album. I’m currently reading “The Accident” which was recommended to me by my son Michael.
BL: Has another artist, in any field, particularly impressed you lately?
MM: My wife is a member of Screen Actors Guild so we received some of the latest film releases before the SAG awards. Quite a few extraordinary performances. I was especially taken with Michael Keaton’s tour de force “solo” in “Birdman.”