Steve Smith: The Journey Never Ends

Pinned down, unable to jump ship, he did the honorable thing.

“I got involved with a Journey reunion project,” says longtime Journey skinsman and prodigious rhythmic collaborator Steve Smith. “After we hadn’t played together for 11 years, we did the album Trial By Fire, and I signed a contract that I would do a tour as well.”

For Smith, this experience was a career game-changer. “It turned into a two-year deal [1996—’97]. And it became a turning point for me, because I was so frustrated that I contracted myself to this one band. I had a clinic tour I couldn’t take, and wasn’t able to play with my band Vital Information because of this obligation. My life was being controlled by some outside energy – in this case, by Journey.”

In all fairness, Smith notes that this Journey experience “was musically and personally quite rewarding.” But – and this was a big “But” – Smith had to decline other jobs in the meantime. “I realized when you turn down offers, they stop coming. So I wasn’t touring; I was out of the loop. And that’s when I started to record the albums I did for the Tone Center label.” Those albums, it turns out, were expressions of Smith’s then current “large storehouse of creative ideas.” You might say the Journey experience also helped to jumpstart the Tone Center years, from 1998 through 2005. And those years turned out to be some of his most productive yet.

Smith found the call of the open road trumping his desires to nestle in and stay put in a recording studio. Only this time, he wasn’t pinned down with contractual obligations. He’d discovered he could live in the best of both worlds, with the freedom to record whenever he wanted to, but also free to enjoy the touring circuit at almost a moment’s notice in any number of creative settings. That increased demand to take his various groups on the road was another clear sign, that from Journey was born an ever-expanding and more fruitful set of career opportunities. The choices Smith has made in his career beginning with his fateful break as the drummer for everyone’s favorite ’80s rock powerhouse, have been, for drummers off all stripes and styles, a professional model worthy of serious consideration.

No “I” In Team

Smith’s life-long journey of musical collaboration began, as it always does, with a single step. “When I first started studying drumming in ’63,” says 55-year-old Smith, “I had the good fortune to have a teacher from the Boston area, named Billy Flanagan, who gave me a good technical foundation. I started simple: a pair of sticks and a practice pad. For the first two years I focused on rudiments and reading. In my third year I got a snare drum and spent a year playing only the snare drum. Eventually I got a kit and learned about coordination, independence, and how to play the instrument in a swing context. My high school years were a combination of big band playing and every other kind of gig I could find – from weddings to circus bands to local garage bands. When I was studying at Berklee back in the early ’70s, I kept up the big band playing but also developed as a small group player.

“When I left Berklee and went on tour with Jean-Luc Ponty, in ’76, that was a real change for me. I heard the fusion style because that’s what most of the younger jazz drummers were doing back then. Players like Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Mike Clarke, Tony Williams – they were jazz drummers who were playing the music of the time; but that was quite natural because that’s what was in the air. I hadn’t played much in that style before but I developed that fusion playing naturally, on the job, with Jean-Luc. Basically, it was playing with a jazz concept but with a strong rock/funk approach. Whereas, when playing with Journey, I learned to make my playing sound even bigger and deeper in the groove.”

Any Way You Want It

Journey’s interest in hiring a jazz drummer wasn’t as much of a surprise as you might think. The band actually got its start in the early ’70s as an offshoot of Santana during a particularly jazzy, progressive period in the guitar maestro’s music. Two of his most significant collaborators at the time were guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Gregg Rolie, both of whom would eventually leave the band and together form Journey in 1973.

In Smith’s words, Journey was “a progressive jazz-rock band, their first three albums containing much instrumental music in a Mahavishnu Orchestra fusion-music vein. When I showed up, they were still playing more of the fusion material as well as the pop stuff, and were looking for a drummer who could play that way.” Smith was still playing with Ponty, and later toured with Ronnie Montrose, who was opening for Journey at that time. “So they saw me play every night,” he remembers of lead singer Smith Perry and company. When Smith got the call in 1978 to join, he says he “hadn’t really played much rock. But they trusted me to be able to play their kind of music.”

Needless to say, it was a huge learning experience. “There was a transition where I was being asked to be more of a drum-part composer. Having played with more of a jazz-fusion interactive time feel, I realized that that didn’t work with rock music. I had to come up with exact parts, to become compositional with my drumming. I also learned more about the business, and how to make music, produce albums. And I learned about the art of collaboration.”

Planting seeds, Smith’s experiences with Journey led to ways of music-making that have stayed with the drummer ever since. “With Journey,” he says, “the way we wrote music was always collaborative. No one ever came in with a finished song – everything came from nothing. The five of us came up with the music. With Ponty, it was, Here’s our new album. He’d put it front of the band and have us play it. With Journey there was teamwork.”

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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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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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Ever in search of new musical stimuli, Smith has been busy exploring the New York music scene ever since 2005, when he sold his home and studio in California and moved to Manhattan part-time (he and his wife have a permanent home in southern Oregon). That move also saw him stepping up work on various DVD projects for Hudson Music. Passing along his gift is something he’s a passionate about as exercising it in creative new contexts. This appetite for instruction evolved naturally out of a history spent learning from the best.

Smith studied with the legendary Bill Flanagan from fourth grade until he graduated high school in 1972. From there he went to Berklee, where, for the next four years, he honed his craft under Gary Chaffee and Alan Dawson. “My next major teacher was Freddie Gruber,” Smith remembers. “From 1990 to 1995. Gruber is a drum guru specializing in musical technique and a natural approach to playing that aligns the player to the laws of physics. With all of these teachers, it was a master/apprenticeship relationship. There have also been a lot of Indian teachers.

“I started doing clinics after I was with Journey for a few years. I realized that I enjoy teaching, and started working with DCI, which became Hudson Music. They saw me do a whole clinic with the whole history of U.S. drumming [Drum Set Technique/History Of The U.S. Beat]. I did the research myself, and we turned it into a DVD that set the precedent for most of the DVDs that Hudson Music was to become. I continued to do clinics and to develop new ideas, so then they asked me to do a follow up, Drum Legacy: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants, with John Riley. I used a lot of the live footage we had from the Jazz Legacy group. There’s also The Art Of Playing With Brushes DVDs, which was originally an idea of Adam Nussbaum’s: ’What if we can get a bunch of great brush players together and get them to all play to the same track?’ We got Ben Riley, Billy Hart, Charli Persip, Eddie Locke, and Joe Morello. Adam and I worked on organizing the whole project, as played and explained by these great drummers playing and verbally explaining what they are doing.”

As much as he’s enjoyed the DVD approach, Smith also loves hitting the road for clinic tours, master classes, and the Drum Fantasy Camp he operates with Dave Weckl. “I’m ready for the next thing,” Smith says. “The next new setting with musicians who are familiar with, say, the Indian music. It’s a different situation from Vital Information, bridging the gap with listeners who are not familiar with this music; it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Raga Bop Trio, which is different than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s not like I’ve dropped what I have loved over the years, but I add new elements to what I enjoy doing. I know that when I am out there touring, for club owners and agents it’s always a struggle to get the club to book a group that no one is familiar with. I have to take a chance, knowing that some times the crowd won’t come out to see us. But I have to follow the music.”

Two Of A Kind

Peter Erskine on Steve Smith

“I remember Smith and I shared all the same enthusiasms,” says Peter Erskine on his first encounters with Steve Smith. “We were almost like brothers. I met Smith in the early ’70s at one of the Stan Kenton summer jazz camps. I was playing drums with Stan and became an instructor by default. Smith and I were both same age, with long hair, mustaches, we looked quite the same: He was better looking. He applied what he learned so quickly, working with big bands in the Massachusetts area, like Liv Biviano’s, and the Jean Luc Ponty gig shortly thereafter. I went on to play with Maynard Ferguson and then Weather Report, Smith with Journey.”

Erskine, whose diverse background also includes work with pop and crossover acts (Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan, Queen Latifah), recognized a kindred spirit in Smith. “What impressed me so much about Smith back then, and still to this day, was and is the fact that he has openly embraced the search for experience in all kinds of music. Smith has taken that drive to heart, and he’s done it more successfully and more authentically than any other musician I know. He’s made valid contributions in such a wide variety of musical styles. And he’s a great educator. He gets the history of the instrument, and the responsibility of those of us who were lucky enough to receive it from the masters, from our heroes, to pass it along.”

Last summer Erskine joined Smith for a Drum Fantasy Camp in Cleveland. “We jammed on two drum sets at a couple of sessions,” Erskine says. “His beat was remarkably easy to play with. That, to me, is the bottom line: The most attractive thing that a musician can be is to be comfortable to play with. It was inspiring and an absolute delight.”

Reflecting on Smith’s cultural impact, Erskine says, “I remember the final episode of The Sopranos, when they played ’Don’t Stop Believin’’ by Journey. I’m thinking, That’s pretty far out: Smith is part of this important watershed moment in American media. And I started paying attention to the music of Journey, and then here’s Smith in another setting playing Jo Jones on the hi-hat! I’m thinking, How many other guys could drive a band like that and also play the hi-hat? He’s the only guy I could think of who could.”

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Groove Analysis

Vital Chops by Brad Schlueter

Steve Smith has always been a serious drummer. He has made a careful study his craft, drawing inspiration from the great drummers who came before him. And he has continued to develop his abilities throughout his enviable career. He came to wide attention during his tenure with Journey, and unlike many drummers in radio-friendly bands, he always managed to sneak some clever little twist into the tunes that kept us drummers interested. So Smith, on behalf of those of us who’ve covered Journey’s hits, thanks!

“Don’t Stop Believin’”
Smith created an interesting and somewhat challenging drum part for this inspirational song. Inspired by Terry Bozzio’s approach in his band Group 87, Smith employed similar offbeat cymbal accents and tom hits to create a drum part that’s become a classic. The difficulty many drummers face when playing this part is that Smith played the cymbal bell and tom hits with his right hand while maintaining an unbroken hi-hat pattern with his left hand. The drum part evolves as the song progresses with three subtly different cymbal parts. The first two are defined parts. For the third section, Smith plays more freely and improvises cymbal hits around this basic pattern.

DRUM! Notation Guide

“Separate Ways”
This fill has baffled more drummers than probably any other fill that Smith played with Journey. I’ve seen lots of bands dedicated to the Journey/REO/Styx idiom (what else are you going to play with a castrati lead singer?), and the drummers nearly always change this fill, either because it’s fast, they don’t understand it, or it’s just too difficult. This fill is basically a linear triplet played snare, high tom, low tom and bass drum. The difficulty is that Smith magically fit four of these triplets across just three beats creating a 4:3 polyrhythmic fill. Don’t be scared! It can be counted and learned if you remember to play the snare on every third sixteenth-note (1, the ah of 1, the & of 2, the e of 3), squeeze the other notes in between them and end with a flam. One of the best rock drum fills ever!

“Island Holiday”

This early Vital Information track features some tasty drum work from Smith, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. The first break begins in the middle of bar three with him playing eighth-note triplets divided into groups of four beginning with a bass drum note that creates an interesting polyrhythmic effect. The second break shows Smith playing quad-type patterns and then switching in the eighth bar to a paradiddle-diddle played between his hands and feet. It may have been played RH RF RH LH RF RF or he may have used a double pedal to split the bass drum notes. The final break is absolutely mind blowing: Basically, Smith plays something like the break in the first line in that he plays eighth-note triplets divided into groups of four beginning with a bass drum. On top of that, he adds a tom note between the bass drum and the first snare and then double strokes the last two notes of each grouping. You may prefer to think of these as a bass drum leading into flammed 5-stroke rolls played in the rhythm of a half-note triplet. That clarifies things, doesn’t it?

“Novato”
I chose this Vital Information tune because I’m a sucker for a funky march, and this tune starts with a tasty but simple one. Smith later switches to a Sambaesque groove with a backbeat that alternates bars of 6/4 and 4/4. He outlines the ending of the 6/4 measures with an extra bass drum on the & of 6 and embellishes the pattern throughout the section.