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Steve Smith: Drummer For All Seasons

R.J. DeLuke By

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I feel like I unify the musicians in the group into a unit. Because the rhythm is the common denominator of how musicians connect and relate to each other. —Steve Smith
Drummer Steve Smith has traced the history of jazz drumming—pretty much most of American music drumming—in his storied career that has seen him drive big bands, small jazz combos, and fiery fusion groups, including tenures with Jean-Luc Ponty and the rock band Journey.

Though sometimes—as in the case of jazz-rock fusion—he was thrown into the fray without much experience, he has always been up to the challenge. He handled each situation with aplomb, and as a result is now one of the drummers that can be counted on without question, no matter what the situation, to produce and make valuable contributions. He's done countless studio sessions with premier rock and jazz musicians, conducts drum clinics and tours regularly. He doesn't just know the drum kit inside and out, he knows music; knows how to adapt on the fly, something he savors, which is why playing jazz is his favorite creative outlet.

"I feel like I unify the musicians in the group into a unit," says Smith addressing the value of the drummer. "Because the rhythm is the common denominator of how musicians connect and relate to each other. The one true common denominator is rhythm. The front line deals with melody. The guitarists and the pianists are dealing with harmony. They are all dealing with rhythm, but the drummer mainly deals with rhythm. That's how we communicate. My job, I feel, is the unify the group into a cohesive whole. Then we go from there."

There are always variables in the vast art form that is music. Smith handles them. One needn't even go back in his strong career to see. There is plenty of aural evidence this year alone, as Smith has released a stellar album from his longtime band Vital Information NYC Edition. The new disk, Viewpoint is in itself an amalgam of styles groups led by Smith have been playing for years, all in the jazz vein. Later this year, an organ trio record, Groove: Blue (Q-Rios Records) will come out with B3 wizard Tony Monaco and guitarist Vinny Valentino, which Smith describes as "more in the swinging, Blue Note, Grant Green-type direction."

If that weren't enough, Smith is the drummer on the recently released Vortex (Theories Recordings) a solo effort by Journey guitarist Neil Schon, that features Jan Hammer on keyboards. "It was fun to get back together with him. It was just the two of us," Smith says. "We came up with music together. He had some songs written, we co-composed some songs and we put a whole album of material together. He played bass and had Jan Hammer play keyboards. It's an instrumental rock album."

Those varied albums display some—but not all—of the ground Smith can cover.

"It depends on what the setting is. Whether it's a rock group, a big band, or small group. Some kind of mix of ethnic musicians," he says. "It depends on what the vocabulary is, what the conception of how we play together is. But the main role is that unification of everyone, so it feels cohesive. That requires listening very closely to what's going on and playing the most supportive way that I can. It helps everyone do what they do and makes it as easy as possible for them to do what they do."

There are various bands to which lends his rhythmic colors. One of the main one he leads is Vital Information, now consisting of he and Valentino, along with pianist Mark Soskin, Andy Fusco on alto sax, and Baron Browne on bass. The group started with different personnel decades ago and has survived well, as the new recording shows.

In the beginning, Tom Coster was the keyboard player, but he retired from the music business. Meanwhile, Smith had two other bands: Buddy's Buddies, a Buddy Rich alumni group that started back in 1999 with saxophonists Steve Marcus, Fusco and Mark Soskin. Browne eventually joined on bass and the group played the music associated with Buddy Rich. That group evolved into Jazz Legacy and started playing arrangements of tunes associated with drummers like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.

"That was a fun group. It also included Baron Browne, Mark Soskin, Andy Fusco. Steve Marcus had died, which is why we moved away from the Buddy Rich music so much. Walt Weiskopf joined us on tenor saxophone. We toured and made a couple of records," Smith said. When Coster retired, "it felt right to bring in Mark Soskin on piano and Andy Fusco on the alto. That gave me the ability to play the music from all three groups in one band. It gave us a lot of options."

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