Jeff Lorber Fusion – Step It Up (2015)

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An established and reputable brand is a very valuable thing: people quickly associate Apple, Mercedes-Benz and Dom Pérignon with quality, and feel confident that they are very likely to get among the best whenever they purchase something from these marques just from the name because those names have consistently delivered time and time again.

This often applies to music, as well. And in within the realm of crossover or fusion jazz, enthusiasts of that idiom look to ‘The Jeff Lorber Fusion’ as purveyor of fine, funky contemporary jazz led by keyboard wizard Jeff Lorber. The JLF made a string of very strong albums in the late 70s and early 80s that carried forward styles first introduced a few years earlier by Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Billy Cobham’s Spectrum-era recordings before Lorber shuttered the band following 1981’s Galaxian, making albums under simply ‘Jeff Lorber’ and concentrating more on production and session work for a number of years.

But the return of the ‘The Jeff Lorber Fusion’ moniker was Lorber’s way of announcing a new commitment to an old vibe. Beginning with 2010’s Now Is The Time, the composer and Fender Rhodes scholar collaborated with a couple of other titans of the contemporary jazz scene, saxophonist Eric Marienthal and bassist Jimmy Haslip. Galaxy followed, which marked a full return to that ‘old school’ funk-jazz Lorber did much to help popularize.

Step It Up — coming September 25, 2015, Heads Up International — is the fourth album of the Fusion’s comeback era and this one is marked by an even closer collaboration between Lorber and Haslip, sharing both album’s production and some of the songwriting credits, with Haslip appearing on ten of the eleven tracks. Unlike the original JLF, this version isn’t a formal, four-piece band, but that matters none as Lorber and Haslip are mixing and matching the right musicians to fit each song, a la Steely Dan.

Some contemporary jazz albums will have a cut or two that grooves; every track on Step It Up does that, and does it well. That’s a hallmark of the Jeff Lorber Fusion, as well as Lorber driving that groove with a Rhodes, organ and, quite frequently, acoustic piano.

There’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes into constructing those grooves, and that’s where the veteran know-how of Lorber and Haslip work to make these songs stand well above the multitude of faceless smooth jazz. As usual, Lorber devises slithering thematic lines harmonized in sync with a co-lead voice, and most of the time, his co-lead is saxophonist Gary Meek, whether it’s tenor (“Get Up”, “Arecibo”, “Deep Green) or soprano (“Up On This”, Starfish”, “Tenth Victim”). David Mann’s horn arrangements add some RnB magic to songs and precision placed as to not disturb that groove. They even get up front for “Right On Time” and in doing so, lends evidence that the bridge between Duke Ellington and James Brown isn’t that long.

Where star guest spots were called for, co-producer Haslip looked no further than former Yellowjackets mates to fill those roles. Tenor sax authority Bob Mintzer sits in for “Fire Spirit,” which breaks up the steady groove with clever descending patterns, and Lorber pulls out the Minimoog for his solo spot, followed by Mintzer’s seasoned post bop patterns. Robben Ford lends his electric guitar for three tracks, including a very tasty blues solo on “Arecibo.” Toward the end of “Deep Green,” both Ford and Lorber root down and get grimy (dig Lorber’s gospel piano at the fade out); there’s nothing glossy or ‘smooth’ about it. Session superstars Paul Jackson, Jr., Lenny Castro and Vinnie Colaiuta appear all over this album, too.

Many of the Lorber/Haslip co-writes dig a little bit deeper harmonically, recalling the fusion experiments of Weather Report, Freddie Hubbard even back to Coltrane. The two call it “’70s modal jazz” and cuts like “Starfish”, “Tenth Victim” and “Step It Up” have what Lorber describes as “that modal center/freedom” you don’t find on other music labeled ‘smooth’ or ‘crossover’ jazz, building its harmonic patterns around modes rather than chord progressions. It sounds a bit wonky but the way it’s rendered by the two makes it real easy to absorb because of their obsession with getting that groove right.

Step It Up is not merely a title just as ‘The Jeff Lorber Fusion’ is not merely a name. It’s a challenge and Jeff Lorber — along with Jimmy Haslip — rose up to meet it.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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