Steve Smith and Vital Information are renowned, successful commodities. Smith has been named one of the top 25 drummers of all time by Modern Drummer magazine, and Vital Information, the ensemble Smith began in 1983 when he was still in Journey, has for decades been an enjoyably high-octane amalgam of fusion jazz laced with funk-rock grooves.
But for those who favor more straight-ahead jazz, Viewpoint features an important twist. This is the “NYC Edition” of Vital Information, which grafts on members of Smith’s other ensembles, Jazz Legacy, and the Buddy Rich tribute band Buddy’s Buddies. Pianist Mark Soskin replaces Tom Coster and Andy Fusco is added on alto saxophone, transforming VI from a quartet to a quintet. The changes are immediately apparent when Soskin bangs out the familiar intro to Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” on acoustic piano. Sure, Soskin eventually switches to Fender Rhodes while the band hammers on the tune’s sturdy riff. But then two of the next three songs investigate the Rich songbook, with Rich alumnus and tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf arranging and rollicking with Fusco on the frontline for “Time Check” and “Willowcrest.” Later on, Soskin, who spent many years with Sonny Rollins, leads a splendid rendition of Rollins’ classic “Oleo,” and there is a sparkling version of the Desmond/Brubeck chestnut “Take Five” with guitarist Vinny Valentino at the forefront.
Longtime fans of Smith’s bottom-heavy fusillade of beats will gravitate to the drummer’s three solo interludes, but the throwback material doesn’t hinder him either-check his torrid 35-second solo to open “Time Check,” or his pyrotechnics on “Oleo.” The rubber-and-steel rhythmic foundation of bassist Baron Browne is another signature sound of Vital Information that ferociously retains its standing in the mix. Smith, who has past associations with Ahmad Jamal and Wadada Leo Smith as well as Journey on his résumé, proves here that words like “fusion” and “vital information” can be delightfully flexible.