April 3, 2007

In revitalizing jazz, drummer finds new grooves

Steve Smith formed Vital Information more than 20 years ago.The upcoming performances at the Jazz Factory by drummer Steve Smith and Vital Information, in support of Vitalization (due in June from Hudson Music), are essential for fans of electric jazz and funk.Smith, who formed Vital Information as a fusion band more than two decades ago, has a resume that stretches from Journey to tributes to the Buddy Rich Big Band, and Vitalization features Tom Coster (keys), Baron Browne (bass) and Vinny Valentino (guitar).In a recent interview from New York, Smith said that Vitalization continues to evolve from a jazz-rock fusion to a more funk, straight-ahead style. He said it began with 1998’s Where We Come From and continued with 2002’s Show ‘Em Where You Live.Both albums have the same lineup as Vitalization, except that Frank Gambale played guitar then and generally employed a more rock-oriented style than Valentino shows on the new release. Since Vitalization is not yet available, the best preview of the band may be found on Live Around the World: Where We Come From Tour, a two-CD set that took the material from the earlier release and expanded on it in live settings in Sydney, Amsterdam, Chicago and Toronto.The live release features Smith’s homage to Max Roach, Roach’s “The Drum Also Waltzes,” which leads directly into an intriguing recasting of Paul Desmond’s famous “Take Five” as “Take Eight.” On a recording full of highlights, a must mention is the range of material. While mostly original, “covers” include everything from Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” to John Coltrane’s “Mr. PC.”On previous releases, as well as the new one, Smith assimilates and expands on second-line funk rhythms championed by the Meters’ drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, the sophisticated counter-rhythmic funk of the Headhunters’ Mike Clark, and the straight-ahead jazz pulse of swing masters like Roach, Rich and Art Blakey.He also adds world-beat rhythms, most noticeably on two tracks off Vitalization, “Interwoven Rhythms — Synchronous” and “Interwoven Rhythms — Dialogue.” Both feature interplay between Smith and tabla player Pete Lockett, replete with “Indian drum talk” over the rest of the band.Valentino’s jazz background, Browne’s funkiness and Coster’s expanded arsenal of keyboards has helped define the more organic, current sound on Vitalization. He said he was pleased with how the album came about after the band had the opportunity to develop the music on the road.“Usually we write and record, and then tour,” Smith said. “This time, we got to develop the music to a higher degree.”The album’s highlights include the hyperfunky “Get Serious,” the swing of “The Bottom Line” and the closing ballad “Positano.” Throughout, Smith’s command of the drumset and his ability to use different rhythmic patterns and variations enables him to push the band without overpowering it. Smith’s pre-show clinic will “cover the fundamentals of drumming, because it’s important for musicians, especially the young ones, to be aware of the fundamentals,” he said.The surroundings are ideal, too. “We’re happy to be coming to the Jazz Factory. We got turned on to it — the Dave Liebman Band played there last year, and Dave and Marco the drummer told me about what a great club it was, and we should really try to play there.”Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com