Steve Smith and Vital Information: Blast Off

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Steve Smith
By Pat Johnson

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Where is it written that jazz musicians need follow a clean line of evolution, starting from point A and moving deeper into the alphabet of development? It’s a musical/existential question that could be posed by any number of players who haven’t followed a diehard jazz path in their careers. Take, for instance, drummer Steve Smith, a genuinely versatile musician who began his creative life in his hometown of Boston, studied at Berklee, and got caught up in the fusion fury of the late ‘70s, hitting the road with Jean-Luc Ponty.

But the association that netted him the tidiest sums and impacted the largest numbers of music consumers was his role as the tasty powerhouse timekeeper in the arena-pop band Journey. He spent eight years with the band, which he joined after moving to the Bay Area in 1978. Towards the end of their gilded stint, he had already begun his reentry into the jazz scene, forming his band Vital Information and recording a guitar-oriented sound with Mike Stern and Dean Brown, for Columbia. He went from Journey to working with Steps Ahead and other jazz settings, proving his formidable abilities in diverse musical landscapes.

Over the years, Vital Information has had a not-exactly cohesive identity, often veering a bit too close to the slick terrain of what devolved into the dreaded Smooth Jazz. But now comes the eighth Vital Information album, Where We Come From, on Intuition, perhaps this changeable group’s freshest, most diverse and well, most vital record yet. It’s swampy, full of rough edges and steamy grooves, and lined with that newly-reborn wonder, the Hammond B-3.

To hear Smith explain it, the album was borne out of frustration with a Journey reunion project a few years ago, which found him contractually tied up and unable to express his jazz ethos. And so, ironically, Smith’s second experience with Journey, like his first, proved to be a catalyst for him unleashing his repressed instinct to play music of a more personal, jazz nature. “The Journey (reunion) felt like a detour, because I’d already been focused on my jazz thing and didn’t have an intention of not staying focused on it, but when they called to do this reunion, it was such a big offer-as these things can be-I couldn’t refuse.

“When that period was over with, I just went full blast. I was desperate to play some music, some jazz and whatever. I got really focused on getting back to my career as a jazz musician and artist, and sideman doing record dates, things like that. I just got really busy.”

Suddenly, Smith’s other musical ego is all over the place. Concurrent with the release of Vital Information’s new sound, based on BBQ soul-jazz, surf music, and other miscellany, are three unabashed power trio “blowing” sessions that Smith made for the Bay Area based Tone Control label. Smith makes ferocious sounds with Frank Gambale and Stu Hamm, with Scott Henderson and Victor Wooten, and with proto-fusioneer Larry Coryell and Tom Coster, respectively. So why does the macho hurly burly of this music sound so liberating at this point in history? Smith et al hark back to admittedly old school fusion values, from before the unholy marriage of the words “smooth” and “jazz” gave the merger of jazz and pop a reputation for wallpaper aesthetics.

The Tone Center trilogy, reports Smith, “was the idea of Mike Varney, who runs the Tone Center label. He said `let’s just get you guys in the studio and I want to hear you play. More is more and less is less. I want you to deliver a record chock full of playing.’ We accepted that mission.” Suffice to say, you won’t be hearing this music in grocery stores.

Like few others, Smith enjoys the rare perspective of a player who jumps back and forth freely from the jazz and pop worlds, going from, say, a Mariah Carey session to a free-blowing outing with Scott Henderson and Victor Wooten, on one of the new Tone Center projects, Vital Tech Tones, to hopping a flight to play with Turkish pianist Aydin Essen. It’s all in a month’s work.

To pull it off, he maintains a keen sense of the priorities in each musical context. In pop, for instance, “really, the main priorities are on the writing, the craftsmanship. You’re trying to craft a pop hit. It’s not about the playing. When it comes down to getting a track, yeah, the playing is important as far as getting a track and getting a performance of guitars and vocals that will make a great record, but there are a lot of other priorities.

“Whereas in the jazz world, the composing, I find, is important but it doesn’t hold the same degree of importance, because the song doesn’t live or die by the song itself. If something is going to be successful, the playing and the interplay between the members has as much to do with the success of the music as the composition itself. Sometimes, you don’t even have a composition, or very little. It’s pretty different.”

Looking deeper into rock’s roots, Smith says, “the way I see it, if you look at it historically, early on, rock and roll was still pretty close to jazz and blues. The branch off the tree hadn’t grown too far. So you had musicians who were much closer to a jazz concept.

“Drummer-wise, you think about guys like Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and even John Bonham and Charlie Watts. They were baby steps away from being jazz drummers themselves. They didn’t grow up listening to rock and roll drummers. There was no such thing. They were listening to Art Blakey and Philly Jo Jones and Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. The guitar players were listening to Muddy Waters and Albert King and B.B. King and maybe Charlie Christian.

“The playing aspect was a big part of the music. Listen to those Cream jams and Hendrix. And they were swinging, too. The feel was different. There was more of a triplet feel. Then something happened: I call it the `Ringo Effect.’ This is nothing negative about Ringo himself, because he himself had a great swing feel, which I believe comes from jazz and blues background he had himself. He was listening to people who were swinging.

“But I think before him, drummers would look at drummers like Buddy Rich or drum heroes of the time and think `that looks great, it looks like fun, but I really have to take some lessons and learn how to do this.’ When Ringo came on the scene, young drummers could think `that looks like fun. Anybody can do that. I’m going to go buy a drum set and join a band.’ It changed the whole vibe. Studying no longer became an important part of the learning aspect.

“People would learn by themselves and pick things up off of records. I believe in doing that, but they missed the connection of the swing aspect. The roots of rock and roll music was based on the swing, the shuffle feel, that American innovation of swing rhythm. They played the same notes, but didn’t have the same feel. Then you get generations of rock drummers who have no connection to swing.”

A deliberately analytical mindset was key to the concept behind the new Vital Information album, as Smith began listening to go back and listen to older instrumental paradigms from the ‘60s, such as Booker T and the MGs and the Meters. He encouraged keyboardist Tom Coster to break out his old B-3-that current timeless keyboard of choice-and his Fender Rhodes and even his original instrument, the accordion. Jeff Andrews plays electric and acoustic bass (and plays them masterfully: he remains one of those musicians deserving much greater recognition) and guitarist Frank Gambale dug out his fat hollow body guitar.

As the title, Where We Come From, suggests, it’s all about looking back and linking up roots with the present. Smith comments, “I love how loose and fun the music felt before it got so incredibly self-conscious, with smooth jazz and quantized keyboard parts and drum loops and click tracks. Suddenly, the music is self-conscious about time and perfect performance and whatnot. The music I was hearing from the ‘60s and ‘70s just had a looser, more realistic feel.”

In recording, the purposefully loose methodology allowed for fragments of tracks and pieces snipped from improvisations. From the unstructured material on the improvised tape rolls, Smith came armed with a razor blade, cutting and splicing in search of magical moments. A few of those improvs wind up as the “Craniac” series on the album, but one longer jam, “Once in a Lifetime,” is an uncut, ten-minute piece, in tribute to Tony Williams’ seminal jazz-rock band, Lifetime. The two cover tunes-Andrews’ arrangement of the Led Zeppelin tune “Moby Dick” and Ornette Coleman’s “Happy House”-may define the stylistic parameters of the project.

An ambience of autobiography underscores the music. In Smith’s own experience, he began his learning process through a swing/big band aesthetic and worked his way outward. “When I first started, and took lessons starting when I was nine years old, the teacher I studied with was a swing drummer. He was in his 60s back then and had grown up playing with the big bands. It was pre-bebop.

“So the initial drum instruction I got was swing drumming, from the Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich type of school. That was good, in retrospect, because it set me up to have a foundation to then continue to evolve in the same path that the music itself evolved in. Then I was ready for bebop and for the free jazz of the ‘60s and then the fusion thing, bringing in the rock element that I picked up just by growing up in the ‘60s.”

Does Smith still sense any kind of stigma from jazz circles, attached to his identity as the Journey-man drummer? “If you had asked me that ten years ago, I would have said yes, but I don’t feel that anymore. Somehow, just through going right from Journey to Steps Ahead and making some nice records and touring with that group and going on the road with Ahmad Jamal and then Vital Information, it has sort of taken-if you want to call it a `stigma’-away.

“When I left in 1985, I didn’t want to be branded as one of these guys who is a band drummer and that’s it. So I worked hard developing as an individual, as a drummer and musician. I think I’ve gotten to a place where people do know me as an individual. It worked out.

At this point, Smith says, his complex identity works in his favor. “I find that rock musicians who hire me, for the most part, perceive me as a rock drummer. They see my dabblings in jazz as self-indulgent. And the jazz musicians who hire me know me as a jazz musician. They view my rock playing as `paying the bills.’ So different people have different perspectives on me, I think.” He laughs, “it has worked out pretty well.”

Gearbox

Sonor drums: 20” bass drum, three rack toms-8,” 10,” and 12;” Floor toms are 14” and 16.” “I generally use an older vintage snare drum, usually a Ludwig snare. I have drums from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘60s and ‘70s.” Zildjian cymbals, a combination of K’s and A customs. “The new Zildjian cymbal, the Constantinople is a great cymbal. It really does capture the feeling and the sound of the classic ‘50s and ‘60s K’s.”
Cow bells, a couple of wood blocks, mounted tambourine, ching ring, the percussion accessories, by LP. “I got inspired by Baby Dodds, and worked that into the playing.” I use the DW double pedal, the Vic Firth Steve Smith signature drum sticks, Remo drum heads. And I pack them away in my Joe Porcaro cases.

Listening Pleasures

Marc Johnson, The Sound of Summer Running (Verve), Michael Brecker, Two Blocks from the Edge (Impulse), John Scofield, A Go Go (Verve).

Originally published in November 1998

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