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Steve Smith & Vital Information: Vitalization

Drummer Steve Smith knows no stylistic boundaries. He played arena pop with Journey, then started a varied jazz session career, and has led the fusion band Vital Information for the past quarter-century. Perhaps it’s because that group’s new release follows its strongest (2004’s Come On In) in 20 years, or because Smith’s recent sessions include Indian music with saxophonist George Brooks’ Summit group (with tabla drummer Zakir Hussain), but Vitalization sounds like a case of mistaken identity.

Smith has been studying konnakol (South Indian vocal percussion), which he and guest percussionist Pete Lockett employ on the opening “Interwoven Rhythms-Synchronous.” Vital Information fans may be double-checking their CDs to be sure the wrong one wasn’t enclosed. Longtime keyboardist Tom Coster’s stop-and-start instrumental “Get Serious” sounds more familiar, aided by guest percussionists Gilad and Juan Carlos Melian.

Another new component is guitarist Vinny Valentino, who replaced longtime member Frank Gambale last year. Guest saxophonist Bill Evans enhances Valentino’s sense of rhythm and swing on his tunes “The Trouble With” and “The Bottom Line” (co-composed with bassist Baron Browne, now in his 10th year with Vital Information). The guitarist may eventually prove a better fit than Gambale.

Indian rhythms enhance the instrumental “Seven and a Half,” but then Smith and Lockett reprise their konnakol on “Interwoven Rhythms-Dialogue.” The disc’s second half is closer to vintage Vital Information, with Smith soloing over the band vamp on the three-part suite “The Closer,” and the scene-stealing Coster providing highlights through both synthesizers and Hammond organ on “Groove Time” and “Jimmy Jive.” If there had been more like this up front, or if this were a Smith solo release, Vitalization wouldn’t sound like a case of misleading information.

Originally Published