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Keep Steppin by Mike DiRubbo Quintet

Keep Steppin’ is alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo’s second release and the follow-up to his exceptional 1999 debut "From The Inside Out" (Sharp Nine Records). The thing that made DiRubbo’s playing on "From The Inside Out" so impressive was the passion and hunger that his solos exhibited. Here on his sophomore release, he seems much more relaxed and laid back - maybe too relaxed and too laid back. It’s not that he isn’t playing well. Technically, his playing is perfect. Even at the most hectic tempos he never misses a beat and he navigates the changes with grace and dignity. But I feel that on this recording he just doesn’t quite reach the same level of intensity. On the first album he seemed to be playing at the very edges of his ability, unafraid to take chances, both harmonically and melodically. Here he is obviously a more mature player, but with that maturity has come a slight loss of that flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sensation that permeated the earlier recording.

Perhaps it’s a little unfair to judge this recording by the previous one. Not only do all artists grow and change over time, but a recording session or two does not necessarily paint the entire picture of where an artist is, artistically speaking. Emotional states change from day to day, session to session and a musician’s emotional state plays a major role in how they are playing at any given moment, especially in jazz, where solos are really mini-compositions created out of thin air. However, one of the exciting things about becoming enthralled with an artist is observing how they develop from one recording to the next. That being the case, it’s only natural to have certain expectations based on what one has experienced in the past. Standing strictly on its own, "Keep Steppin’" is a fine album, it’s just a little different from what I was expecting.

On the other hand, there are many aspects of this recording that I truly loved. First, the rhythm section of Mike LeDonne on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums is absolutely fantastic. Their playing is tight, crisp and inspiring. In addition to creating and maintaining a solid foundation that serves as the perfect springboard for the two frontline horns, they also contribute exciting, creative solos of their own. Sharing the frontline with DiRubbo’s alto is Jim Rotondi on trumpet. Rotondi’s trumpet playing is the definition of fiery. With a wide, beautiful tone he relentlessly pushes the envelope with solos that are breathtakingly passionate and complex.

While DiRubbo’s solos may not be quite as combustible, where he truly does shine on this recording (as on the previous one) is as a composer. He contributes two and a half compositions to this album ("Introspection", "Keep Steppin’" and a collaboration with Rotondi on "Around The Way"). DiRubbo has a very special gift for songwriting. There is something inexplicably unique about his tunes. Whether it’s a ballad, a midtempo jaunt or an uptempo cooker, once you get a feel for his style his songs become instantly recognizable. That’s a trait that few modern jazz composers possess, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of his tunes were to be considered jazz standards some day.

This album also features a very nice original by pianist LeDonne ("Encounter") in addition to the standards "The End Of A Love Affair" and "Solar", a McCoy Tyner tune ("Sunset"), a Warren Byrd tune ("Mike’s Move") and Sam Jones’ "Bittersweet". If DiRubbo’s solos lack a bit of fire on the majority of the tracks here, he makes up for it on "Bittersweet", where he delivers a performance that rivals the best moments of his earlier release. This song is based on an altered blues form and DiRubbo stretches out on it and really makes it his own - a task that can be difficult to do with blues.

While "Keep Steppin’" didn’t totally live up to my expectations, it’s still a wonderful record by a formidable young jazz saxophonist and composer that I have no doubt will become even more formidable as times goes on.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mike DiRubbo Quintet
  • CD Title: Keep Steppin
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Criss Cross Jazz
  • Rating: Four Stars
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