The fourth consecutive collaboration between GRAMMY®-nominated keyboardist/composer/producer Jeff Lorber and GRAMMY®-winning bassist/composer/ producer Jimmy Haslip since the two virtuosos reactivated Jeff Lorber Fusion five years ago, Step It Up features 11 new Lorber compositions, several co-written with Haslip. The longtime colleagues also co-produced the recording.
The title Step It Up, says Lorber, "reflects the music: optimistic, energetic and an attempt to ‘step up’ our game—our compositions, production and improvisation—to the next level. This record puts us back in a more familiar Jeff Lorber Fusion groove while we explore some new uncharted areas.”
"We were motivated to find a new direction following Hacienda,” adds Haslip. "That one was a full-on experimental recording. Step It Up is more inside the Jeff Lorber Fusion box but has some new and interesting twists.”
Assisting the pair in creating those twists is a team of world-class musicians, including two former bandmates of Haslip’s in the award-winning fusion band Yellowjackets: saxophonist Bob Mintzer and guitarist Robben Ford. Also lending a hand are drummers Ash Soan, Gary Novak and Vinnie Colaiuta; saxophonist Gary Meek and guitarists Michael Thompson and Paul Jackson Jr. David Mann provides horn arrangements and Lenny Castro percussion. The album was recorded primarily at JHL Sound in Pacific Palisades, California, with additional recording done at other studios in the U.S. and Europe.
As on all past Jeff Lorber Fusion releases, dating back to its 1977 self-titled debut, Step It Up effortlessly mines and merges elements from multiple genres, including jazz, funk, rock and R&B. The original Jeff Lorber Fusion took an extended hiatus in the early ’80s, reemerging and recharging in 2010 with an updated approach that incorporates contemporary rhythms, technology and instrumentation. Prior to Step It Up and Hacienda, Jeff Lorber Fusion released Now Is the Time(2010) and Galaxy (2012), both also via Heads Up. But as they began working on what ultimately became Step It Up, Lorber and Haslip realized they were heading to some new places in their music.
"I’m always writing new stuff and I got together with Jimmy to play him some of the music I was working on,” says Lorber. "My compositions were a bit diverse and Jim suggested focusing more. We came up with the idea of ’70s modal jazz.” Inspired by the classic recordings of such greats as Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson and Weather Report, Lorber and Haslip followed their collective muse, drawing conceptually from the influential output of those legends but filtering it all through their own sensibilities—several of the co-written tunes developed directly out of bass parts Haslip had created.
"We eventually put a list of original tunes together that we thought made a statement and had this modal thread running through it,” says Haslip. "We also have a modern approach to this and we wanted to make sure that there would be strong elements of excitement and uplifting melodic motifs.”
Among the 11 tracks featured on Step It Up, Lorber cites "Fire Spirit,” "Starfish,” "Tenth Victim” and the title track as "having that modal center/freedom, along with some powerful grooves like some of those tracks from the ’70s. Then along with those we have some cool blues tunes like ‘Arecibo’ and ‘Deep Green,’” the latter among three tracks featuring Robben Ford. Another highlight is "Get Up,” about which Lorber says, "Jimmy discovered this one while listening to some older demos on his computer. We had written the sketch a number of years ago and forgotten about it. We both thought it was great when we heard it and wanted to put it on the album, however we didn’t have a melody. I wrote a number of melodies for it but ended up trying to simplify and minimize it as much as possible to not take away from the funkiness of the basic track, which we liked so much. Ash played some really cool drums and David Mann came up with an outstanding horn arrangement.”
Lorber’s composition "Up on This” has its roots in what Jeff calls "a mean modern groove kind of reminiscent of Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody,’” while "Mustang” sports a syncopated melody and superb playing from Mintzer. "Right on Time” is a hard-hitting, fast but highly melodic swing tune with some Hammond B3 organ accents, topped off by a fiery Gary Meek sax solo at the end and sweet horn arrangements by Mann. The album is rounded out by the self-explanatory "Soul Party,” featuring Gary Novak’s solid drum groove and Michael Thompson’s greasy and inventive guitar accompaniment.
Both Lorber and Haslip are quick to heap praise upon the other for his vital contributions to the final product. With decades of expertise between them in every area of composing, playing and recording, they know each other’s strengths inside out. "I’m more of a detail guy and Jimmy is more of a big picture guy,” says Lorber, who plays Fender Rhodes, Moog, mini-Moog and piano on the album. "He helps a lot with figuring out which musicians we might call to complement and develop the songs (in this case Bob Mintzer and Robben Ford).”
Adds Haslip, "Jeff and I have really good chemistry and we have a lot in common with a love of many different styles of music. So together, we form a strong, positive union of ideas and creative energy.”
Never has that chemistry been more evident than on Step It Up. Where they will head next from here is anybody’s guess, but both Jeff and Jimmy are excited about the possibilities. Says Lorber, "I think the direction we’ve charted out from the last few records and this one is a creative, positive one. These records have been about combining the old and new, taking the original Jeff Lorber Fusion sound of funky fusion with bebop and R&B elements and reaching both forward and backward to explore new territory. There’s a renewed sense of exploration, harmonic and melodic adventure and jazziness. The idea of fusion seems fresh again.”