Steps Ahead: 2005 Montreux Jazz Festival

The famous Montreux Jazz Festival, surrounded by the Swiss Alps on the shore of Lake Geneva, is one of the granddaddies of European jazz festivals, created in 1967.

In recent years, Montreux has held an international solo piano competition. One of the first Cubans to compete is Harold Lopez-Nussa, age 23. He's classically trained and studies at the Instituto Superior de Arte. He's also steeped in jazz through family members who play percussion and his Uncle Hernan, a well-known pianist. As Judge Joe Sample told JazzSet, "From the moment he started playing, you could sense the flow... He had the fire and he had subtleties." We hear three songs from his winning set.
Vibe player Mike Mainieri, right, performs next to sax player Bill Evans, left, during a concert by the jazz band Steps Ahead on July 14, 2005 at the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival in Spain. Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images

Our headliner is Steps Ahead, a band that made a splash in the late '70s, when vibes player Mike Mainieri (shown in photo, with current saxophonist Bill Evans) formed the jazz-fusion group as "Steps." Michael Brecker was the original sax player, with bassist Eddie Gomez, drummer Steve Gadd, and pianist Don Grolnick. They confused critics by crossing categories and playing funk on acoustic instruments.

In the '80s they added synthesizers. Some outstanding later members have been saxophonist Bob Berg, pianists Eliane Elias and Rachel Z, bassist Victor Bailey, and drummer Peter Erskine.

In the present incarnation, there is the sparkle and dance of Mainieri's vibes; Bill Evans' lean, sure saxophone; the springy, free-wheeling bass playing of Richard Bona (who also sings) from Cameroon; and Steven Smith's crisp drums. Evans and Smith played together with Miles Davis. Steps Ahead can create a soaring feeling of elation, or dark and thrilling speculation.

Michael Brecker, long a major force on the music scene, had to drop out of the 2005 SA tour because of illness. He is at home recuperating from a bone marrow transplant. Though his condition is serious, we are told he is slowly and steadily getting stronger. So we round out JazzSet with moments from Michael Brecker from our archive, as we send him our strong good wishes for a full recovery.

"La Negra Bailaba (The Negress Danced)"
"Memories of Tomorrow" by Keith Jarrett
Lopez's own "Timbeando"

Steps Ahead
"Pools" by Don Grolnick
"Wishing Well" by Mike Stern
"Safari" by Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker
"Slings and Arrows" from Michael Brecker, sax; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Jeff "Tain" Watts, drums, at Iridium in New York City, November 1996. (Our notes say that both Stanley Turrentine and Pat Metheny were in the house.)

Michael Brecker's recovery is the cover story of the June 2006 'JazzTimes,' coming soon.
Mike Mainieri's record company is the home for Steps Ahead CDs.
Montreux Jazz Festival takes place June 30-July 15, 2006.

Thanks to Swiss Radio and the European Broadcast Union, and the Grammy Foundation, which funds the preservation of our archive.
Our writer is Jill McManus.
Host Dee Dee Bridgewater's recording engineer is Ginger Bruner.
JazzSet Technical Director is Duke Markos.
Our producer is Becca Pulliam with Executive Director Thurston Briscoe the Third @ Jazz 88 WBGO in Newark, N.J.