Audio Mixers: Craig Bauer; Michael H. Brauer.
Recording information: Cocoa Butt, Culver City, CA; Cologne, Germany; JHK Sound pacific, Palisades, CA; Mannerism Studio, NYC, NY; Soanup Studios, Norfolk, GB.
Photographer: Marina Chavez.
Step It Up, the fourth offering from the revamped Jeff Lorber Fusion, picks up almost exactly where 2014's Grammy-nominated Hacienda left off -- with a couple of twists. Keyboardist Lorber and bassist Jimmy Haslip co-produced the 57-minute, 11-track set of originals. The pair got help from their regular stable of sessionmen including guitarists Paul Jackson, Jr. and Michael Thompson, saxophonist Gary Meek, percussionist Lenny Castro, and a slew of drummers including Vinnie Colaiuta. There are also a couple of star guest appearances from Haslip's former Yellowjackets bandmates, tenorman Bob Mintzer and guitarist Robben Ford. The horn charts were expertly scripted by David Mann. Musically, this material harkens back to the mid-'70s; knotty funk, modal jazz, and the melodic invention of R&B are carefully balanced in a breezy, thoughtful, and spine-tingling presentation. "Mustang," one of two pre-release singles, comes right out of Grover Washington, Jr.'s Feels So Good/Mr. Magic period, with a very similar keyboard vamp and contrasting harmonic interludes in the bridge. Colaiuta's kit and Castro's congas create a hypnotic center around the melody before Mintzer's meaty tenor break turns left of center. "Arecibo," the first of two tracks to feature Ford on lead guitar, is feel- good jazz-funk. The interplay between keyboard tones, melodies, and chunky rhythmic vamps contrast beautifully with the guitarist's deep blues fills and solo. Ford and Mintzer also feature on "Soul Party," the other single. Mann's horn chart has a wider color palette thanks to Haslip's bassline presence. The tenor, Lorber, and the guitarist dialogue in a series of finger-popping cadences, taut funk breaks, and fleet solo moments. Everything in the mix comes back to swinging, meaty, in-the-pocket R&B. As smooth as Galaxy and substantial as Hacienda, this set offers the best of both albums but goes further in its imaginative lyricism and charts. The groove quotient on Step It Up is exceptionally high, refracted through the prism of focused, precise compositions. ~ Thom Jurek