Steve Smith: The Journey Never Ends

Smith’s drumming has become heavily informed in recent years by his observations of how Indian musicians organize rhythm. “Before I started studying them, I knew a lot about the odd time signatures and odd groupings, about subdividing 16 bars into sevens and nines, going over the bar lines,” he says. “What was new had to do with the very developed system of rules on how everything is organized. I’m now able to use some of these concepts in how I understand and approach rhythms and apply that to the drum set. Sometimes I use them to sound like a jazz drummer, other times I’m trying to make them to sound like an Indian drummer. I learned the Indian rhythms by learning konnakol, or South Indian rhythmic vocalizing. That’s been my doorway into the music, how to say the syllables in time, memorize them, then learn how to do it with a groove with my drumming. Sometimes I’m keeping the beat in the pocket [recites some konnakol], and then sometimes I’m playing the konnakol and doubling it on the drums, doubling the entire thing on the drum set by the end of, say, a song like ’Interwoven Rhythms’ (from Vital Information’s 12th and newest CD, Vitalization, on Hudson Music).”

This jazz-Indian fusion on the kit began to take on a life of its own in the early ’90s, when Smith says his evolving technique necessitated new instruments to accommodate it. “I was using a more refined technique,” he says. “Playing lighter and more subtle; getting a bigger sound but not necessarily louder. I developed a whole new setup for playing with Indian musicians. I use the Sonor Jungle Kit, which has a 16" bass drum and I use only flat and splash cymbals for a softer, quieter sound. Playing with Zakir, at first I started playing with brushes a lot, and by 2003 I had helped develop a new dowel-type stick, the Vic Firth Tala Wand, which has a nice rebound and I can play softly with a lot of detail. With Summit, I use the combination of the Jungle Kit and the Tala Wands. When I play with Zakir I consider myself the foundationary rhythmic instrument – his instrument is on top of mine; I get underneath the tabla and stay out of the way and let him express himself. I’m the supportive percussionist, he’s the lead drummer.”

This was a revelation for Hussain when he and Smith first went into the studio to record the Summit album. “Zakir wanted me to play the tracks with the band and he was going to overdub because he was concerned with my volume and the leakage into his mics. He wasn’t accustomed to playing with drummers who played soft enough to not overpower his sound.” Heeding Smith’s suggestions, the two set up about five feet apart in the middle of the studio. The results speak for themselves. “We played the entire record together, live in the studio,” Smith says. “And you can hear on the Summit record the drum set drumming is understated. With Raga Bop, volume isn’t an issue because we don’t have an Indian percussionist and with the electric guitar and sax we can play at a normal volume range for Western jazz instrumentation.”

Follow The Music

Given how many projects Smith has been involved in over the years, one has to wonder how he’s managed to stay focused on what’s right in front of him, musically speaking. “I set time aside to prepare for each project,” he says. “For instance, I did a tour with Vital Legacy, and when that was finished, I had a gig in Oman with a global fusion group. I had a couple of days in between. I try to get a couple of days or weeks to immerse myself in the next project.” For a spring 2010 tour with Italian jazz-fusion guitarist Corrado Rustici, Smith is allowing himself a week to learn all the music. He’s confident he’ll be in a nice comfort zone when they hit Japan for a spring tour.

What’s also a mystery to mere mortal musicians is how Smith can keep the sound of all these bands tight, given how much group hopping he does. “With the groups that I’ve played together with so much, we actually never even rehearse,” he says. “We have a chemistry – it’s there and based on years and years of playing together. It will be a challenge with Corrado to get a sound together; that’s why we’ve booked a week of rehearsals. With very good musicians doing their homework, it seems to come together. Chances are, we’ll sound good in two days!”

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