Steve Smith: The Journey Never Ends

Separate Ways

When he left Journey in 1985, Smith was ready to move away from touring with rock musicians and back to his roots as a jazz drummer. “I wanted to tour with jazz musicians and play with high-level improvisers, like the players in Steps Ahead, where I learned to play lighter and faster with a lot more finesse,” he says. “Plus, I had to think faster to keep up with the music. With rock music, I was essentially playing the same parts night after night, where I was mentally getting into a rut. With jazz you have to be quick, in the moment, with immediate interaction with what is going on around you.”

Smith joined Steps Ahead in 1986 after drummer Lenny White recommended him to vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker. Smith stayed with the band until 1993, and then rejoined Steps Ahead in 2005 as one of by-now-many band commitments. And Smith’s main outfit, Vital Information, which he formed in 1983 when he was still with Journey, remains an ongoing musical enterprise. The original band included guitarists Mike Stern and Dean Brown, saxophonist Dave Wilczewski, and bassist Tim Landers. Then, in ’83, Smith started working with current Vital Information keyboardist Tom Coster (another Santana alum from the ’70s). Nowadays, the band also features guitarist Vinnie Valentino and bassist Baron Browne.

Vital Information is yet another example of Smith’s evolving shared aesthetic, the “collaborative spirit” he says has become central to the band’s working philosophy. “Originally we started out with songs we would bring in, but eventually, in 1997, I made a transition, and I approached the guys with this new way of doing things, and they were open to it.” This teamwork approach then extended to Smith’s new venture with the Tone Center music label, which ended up featuring eight different bands, including Vital Information, with Smith behind the drums every step of the way.

“Writing from the perspective of a drummer à la Tony Williams,” Smith says, “my strength is coming up with great drum grooves and collaborating with others, great players who are also great writers and arrangers in the band.” Smith mentions, for example, keyboardist Mark Soskin, guitarist Walt Weiskopf, Howard Levy on harmonica and keyboards, violinist Jerry Goodman, and many others. Apart from Vital Information, Smith’s exhaustive list of collaborations includes Flashpoint with Dave Liebman, Aydin Esen, and Anthony Jackson; GHS with former Vital Information guitarist Frank Gambale and bassist Stuart Hamm; The Steve Smith, Tom Coster, Larry Coryell Trio; Buddy’s Buddies with Smith Marcus, Andy Fusco, Lee Musiker, and Anthony Jackson; and Vital Tech Tones, featuring Scott Henderson and Victor Wooten.

Buddy’s Buddies, a tribute to Buddy Rich’s small-group recordings, developed into Smith’s Jazz Legacy band and has become an important connection back to his roots. As Smith recalls, “Originally formed with Smith Marcus, who died, Buddy’s Buddies carried on without him and became the Jazz Legacy band. It was really exciting to do the Buddy Rich music, but we were limited – that band really ran its course. In order to bring new life into the band, it was also as part of my process as a drummer reexamining my jazz roots: Philly Joe, Max, Tony. When you readdress later, you do hear different things, and you can do that throughout your life. That was a perfect vehicle to do that. It also led to my re-examining my connections with big bands and my big band teacher Bill Flanagan, who turned me on to Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Louie Bellson.”

Eastern Migration

Speaking in the present tense, but in a way that references his long history as a democratically minded bandleader, Smith says, “I choose the direction the band is going in, by simply saying, ’Let’s explore this direction.’ Of course, you want to make sure the band members want to go in that particular direction – like with Vital Information and bringing in the Indian rhythms we have: Because it was interesting to me, I brought that into the writing. The members were flexible and creative enough to grow with that. And so, I have the freedom to come up with a new direction, new grooves and concepts, and then I know we’re going to come up with something live. Like with Jazz Legacy playing ’A Night In Tunisia, ’Three Card Molly,’ ’Sister Cheryl’ – we sit down together and do a few versions, and Mark [Soskin] or Walt [Weiskopf] come back with a great arrangement.”

Another current project, Raga Bop Trio, further elaborates on Smith’s growing interest in Indian rhythms. A mix of jazz, rock, funk, Afro Caribbean, and Indian classical music, the trio also includes saxophonist George Brooks, whose expertise lies in the North Indian Hindustani style, and Prasanna, a guitarist from India whose calling card is the South Indian Carnatic style. “The trio is a complete group with rhythm and melody,” Smith explains. “And a revelation to me, challenging me as well.” As Smith offers in the liner notes to the album, “The quintessential performance of Indian classical music consists of two main elements: melody and rhythm, raga and tala – a duo of a melodic instrument plus drums is a complete group.” Summit, an Indian-fusion group that Smith has played in with Brooks since 2003, now includes tabla master Zakir Hussain, and was a forerunner to the Raga Bop Trio.

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