Steve Smith's Jazz Legacy
Cecil's Jazz Club
West Orange, New Jersey
October 17, 2008
"Is that all you got?" some wag yelled to Steve Smith immediately after the end of the opening set at Cecil's Jazz Club. "Do you want to come up here and try doing this?" Smith shot back with a smile. The heckler wisely declined the invitation, and the rest of a very enthusiastic audience was left to wonder what more he could have possibly wanted from Smith. At the helm of an eight-piece drum set, six mounted cymbals, a hi-hat and hand bells, the highly regarded jazz and fusion drummer had spent most of the last hour Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, to use the title of his recently-released DVD on Hudson Music. The set's opener, Dizzy Gillespie's "Two Bass Hit," was inspired by Philly Joe Jones's drumming on Miles Davis's recording, Milestones (Columbia, 1958). Tony Williams was evoked during a rendition of his composition, "Sister Cheryl." The last two numbers, "Willow Crest" and "Time Check," were mainstays of the book of the Buddy Rich Big Band.
The Rich tribute contained Smith's most impressive work of the set. He exerted just the right amount of weight and drove the quintet like a big band. Many have tried and failed to approximate Rich's savage and flamboyant intensity; during an extended "Time Check" solo, Smith pulled it off without sounding like a clone.
There was, however, a downside to Smith's virtuosity and penchant for going all out on virtually every tune. After a couple of selections, the spectacular became commonplace, and then all-too-familiar. For every subtle momentlike providing harmony-like support on the tom-toms during electric bassist Baron Browne's "Sister Cheryl" solo, or a nifty brushes and bass-drum combination on the head of "The Peacocks"- -there was an abundance of thrashing, multi-stroke bursts that left no gap unfilled and sometimes clogged the music.
On the tail end of a cross-country tour, the band, featuring tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, alto saxophonist Andy Fusco, pianist Mark Soskin, and Browne, was a tight, well-rehearsed unit. Weiskopf and Fusco have worked together in a variety of projects since an initial encounter in Rich's sax section during the 1970s. The blend of their horns was particularly pleasing on the heads of "Two Bass Hit" and "Willow Crest." Both players made the most of finite solo space. Weiskopf's turn on a wickedly fast version of his composition, "Insubordination," was jam-packed with long, tightly organized lines that didn't let up. During a section when he was accompanied solely by Smith's drums, it was easy to imagine Weiskopf generating the same kind of momentum by himself. Handling the pace in his own way, Fusco dodged and weaved like a boxer and answered Smith's rumbling fill by means of a repetitious, four-note phrase. Accompanied by Weiskopf's riffs, his busy, complex bop-oriented runs on "Willow Crest" made perfect sense.
Soskin's contributions included a bright chordal riff behind Weiskopf's "Two Bass Hit" improvisation. He lay out for a time and then played a variation of the same figure. Soskin's solo exhibited a nice Latin feel that fit snugly into the rock rhythm of "For Steve," Weiskopf's tribute to the late tenor and soprano saxophonist, a mainstay in all of Rich's large ensembles, Steve Marcus. Toward the end of his turn on "The Peacocks," single-note lines leapt from the keyboard, until he fenced them in by means of a number of stern chords. And in the end it was these things, along with Weiskopf's and Fusco's efforts, that made the set worthwhile.