Steps ahead of what? In its original incarnation a decade ago, with tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker in the front line, this group showed promise. But bandleader Michael Mainieri—joined on this latest effort by the Norwegian saxophonist Bendik, guitarist Steve Kahn, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Steve Smith—has finally sunk into a fusion sound best described as fuzak. On the title track the group attempts to create an aural montage of the hustle-bustle of New York City, with a recurring Chinese-sounding motif that at best would be appropriate background music in a bad take-out Szechuan restaurant. Come on, guys, New York never sounded like this, except perhaps from the inside of one of those air-conditioned tour buses.
Mainieri's contributions on midi vibraharp and on synclavier are cloying throughout the session. Bendik throws in a few guttural wails on his own "Lust for Life," one of four ballads he composed for the album. But his playing is otherwise passionless and predictable. For "Senegal Calling," Mass Kool and the African Posse, a percussion trio called in for a guest appearance, provide a whiff of rhythmic adventure. But whatever edge might have been present in their playing has been dulled by overproduction, and a muted vocal chorus of "Senegal, Senegal" gives the piece the feel of a leave-your-troubles-behind Club Med vacation commercial. If you like your jazz comfortably processed and pasteurized, you might find all of this palatable. But in the interests of truth in packaging, this group is clearly due for a name change. Instead of Steps Ahead, how about something more along the lines of Pedestrian? (Capitol/Intuition)