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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."

On tour earlier this year, the band played music from Viewpoint as well as the Buddy's Buddies group and music from Jazz Legacy. "It's a lot of fun for us to have a wide variety of music. Bringing the front line of the sax and the guitar is a beautiful sound. We're bringing the guitar into the Buddy's Buddies material and the sax to the Vital Information material. It's an interesting sound and we love laying together. As a group its a cohesive unit on stage and off stage. That's a lot of fun for us."

Playing varied material with familiar colleagues "gives me a chance to play a lot of different styles of jazz in one group," says Smith. "I get to be an accompanist to some great musicians, and then I get to do quite a bit of soloing and stretching out on the drum features, which is really fun for me. It's something I've been developing and working on for years. My vocabulary as a soloist, as well as an accompanist. I'm wanting to be an equal member when it comes to my contribution to a band."

He says the new recording was done in a day and a half, "a documentation of the music we were playing at the time of that recording session... With good readers and high-level musicians we got that record done quickly and we were off to a gig the second day. We wanted to get in there and make a record and have the spontaneity of not taking too long for every song. A couple of takes and then on to the next song. Which creates a certain energy and a certain focus. Which feels good."

Songs include arrangements of standards like Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing," Paul Desmond's "Take Five" and Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," but with the band's own attitude. Monk turns funky. "Oleo" has an edge the band seems to thrive on. This is a band people can stand to hear more from, and the band does have more touring scheduled.

Smith says Vital Information was performing at the Java Jazz Festival in Indonesia a few years back. At the hotel where many musicians stayed, Tony Monaco was leading jam sessions at night as master of ceremonies and organist. "Vinny Valentino and I had just come off the stage and we went into the jam room and heard this incredible organ playing," recalls Smith. "We made our way up to the stage and after a while asked to sit in, and it was a great rapport right off the bat. Vinny grew up in Washington, D.C., playing in a lot of the organ trios there. He excels in that style. His mentor is George Benson. George came up playing with Jack McDuff."

That meeting led to the idea for the Groove: Blue recording. It was done in Monaco's house in Columbus, Ohio. Again, it took about one and a half days, combining originals and standards." Smith says the trio will likely play some dates, but no major tour is planned.

For Smith, "a lot of my year is taken up with touring. As a sideman, I play with Mike Stern's group a lot" including a lot of work in Europe this year. He is also the sub for drummer Simon Phillips in Hiromi's trio project. Last year, he did a tour with Zakir Hussain and Masters of Percussion.

Smith, a native of the Boston area, started playing drums at the age of nine and was first drawn to he sounds of big band music. At a young age, he got to see live performances by Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and Count Basie. Rich, Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson and Joe Morello were early influences. Then he was exposed to Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Billy Cobham.

"Growing up in the later '60s, I was exposed to the rock that was developing and the culture, and absorbed that in a pretty natural way," Smith said. Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker and John Bonham were among his favorites. "Then the whole jazz-rock and fusion happened as I was getting out of high school and attending the Berklee School of Music from '72-'76. I got to see Billy Cobham and Chick Corea's Return to Forever with Lenny White. Tony Williams Lifetime... That was all highly influential to me. A lot of it was due to the time and the place I grew up in. I grew up in the Boston area, which is a great place to be for music."

Smith notes, "Having that background, a jazz drumming background, gave me a lot of options. My first drum teacher that I went to in '63 was a big band drummer. The way he played and the way he taught was swing style. More from Big Big Sid Catlett and Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson. It wasn't be-bop. I was fortunate I was grounded in a kind of playing that came before more advanced styles of playing. In a way, I traced the history of U.S. jazz, then rock, drumming. Just the way the drumming conceptions evolved themselves."

After swing drumming, he studied be-bop styles of Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. Important in those studies at Berklee were teachers Alan Dawson and Gary Chaffee. "Learning the rock and fusion came quite naturally because it is just putting all those pieces together into a cohesive whole."

In 1974, at 19 years old, Smith played in the Lin Biviano Big Band. He also played with clarinet legend Buddy DeFranco. In 1976, he got a gig with Jean-Luc Ponty, a different ballgame.

"I hadn't really played fusion at the time I played with Jean Luc, because I mainly had played big band and small group jazz," says Smith. "I played a few commercial gigs around Boston where we played pop tunes. Fusion was so new in those days. It hadn't made its way down to young folks playing it on gigs or in jam sessions too much. It was the vanguard of jazz at that time.

"As a student at Berklee, the styles we were dealing with in ensembles was more related to John Coltrane with Elvin and McCoy Tyner, and Miles Davis with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock. The other big influence at Berklee when I was there was the [record label] ECM sound, spearheaded by Gary Burton and then Pat Metheny, who did Bright Sized Life (1976) with Bob Moses and Jaco Pastorius. And Keith Jarrett with his European band that recorded on ECM. Those were the styles we were experimenting with as students. When it came time for me to play with Jean Luc, that was a bit of a leap. I had not played with a full-on jazz fusion group. But I learned how to do it pretty quickly. It was a natural combination of all the kinds of styles I'd been playing before."

Among the Ponty records he did was the noted Enigmatic Ocean.

While with Ponty, the band Journey came to see a Cleveland show and apparently liked what they heard, filing the information away. It was 1978 now, and Smith moved to Los Angeles. There, he auditioned for Freddie Hubbard and rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose, who led his own instrumental rock band called Montrose. Smith chose Montrose over the jazz trumpeter.

"I decided to play with him because I was a young 23-year-old guy and that seemed exciting. It was new. I'd never really done that kind of touring in the rock world," recalls Smith. "I loved playing with Freddie Hubbard, but I felt as though I'd really done a lot of that. After playing with Jean Luc on a big fusion drum set, I didn't feel like going back to an 18-inch bass drum and an acoustic bass. So I went with the rock thing."

As fate would have it, Montrose was the opening act for Journey on a three-month tour. At the end of that tour, they asked me to join the group. "They thought that whatever I was doing would contribute positively to their sound. It was an interesting situation. I decided to go with that. So in September 1978 I joined Journey. It was all new and exciting."

The new situation had its challenges. Smith had a reserve of talent, experience and drive to call upon.

"I didn't really know how to play rock songs. I had to discipline myself to play drums in a very compositional way. Which means I needed a particular beat for the verse and then another beat for the chorus and something else for the bridge, then some fills to pull it all together. That was a very different way of conceiving of playing the drums. Before, I was playing time feels behind people. Not necessarily a repetitive beat. Supporting soloists. I hadn't worked with a vocalist really. Someone might sing a pop tune when I was playing a Top 40 gig in Boston, but I wouldn't consider them great singers. Steve Perry was a great singer. That was an education. Part of what was interesting about it was it was so new and I had never done it before. It was a great experience for me."

Meanwhile. Vital Information had been playing off and on since the earlier 1970s. Smith says "Dave Wilczewski, the saxophonist, and Tim Landers, the bassist, we knew each other from high school. We were playing gigs in Boston during off times. Whenever any of us had a break, we would meet up in Boston. When I was touring with Ponty, Tim Landers was touring with Al Di Meola. Dave Wilczewski was touring with Freddie Hubbard. We'd get together and play gigs. We'd bring in a guitarist who was a good friend, like Dean Brown. By the time I got a record deal with Columbia in 1983, it was natural to put that group together with Mike Stern, who I'd played with a lot in college, and Dean Brown and we made that first Vital Information album... I've kept that name and kept on recording albums and doing tours every year since 1983."

Another exciting gig for the drummer was after leaving Journey in 1985. He took Peter Erskine's place in Steps Ahead and stayed with that group for quite a long time. That was exciting to be playing with Michael Brecker and Darryl Jones and Mike Stern and Mike Mainieri in that situation."

He has recorded with the likes of Bryan Adams, Mariah Carey and Dweezil Zappa. He's produced and played on electric jazz albums for the Tone Center label with players including Dave Liebman, Frank Gambale, Stuart Hamm, Larry Coryell, Scott Henderson and Victor Wooten. But the rock and fusion concerts were drawing to a close for Smith.

"At that point I had explored the rock world enough to my satisfaction. I basically came back to playing jazz full time. I made a lot of rock recordings and did a lot of session work for a lot of years. But I didn't want to go on tour to play rock. I could play it in the studio, but when it came to touring I wanted to keep that in the jazz world, because it's a lot more interesting to play with jazz musicians night after night than the rock music night after night," says the drummer.

The improvisational nature of jazz—the freedom to communicate and change things up—was the draw. "And the level of musicianship of the players involved. The creative act of playing rock is the recording, when you come up with the parts and make the recording. That's why I enjoyed studio work for a long time, making rock records. But not going on tour because [on tour] you re-create what you came up with in the studio. It's pretty fixed. With jazz, it's definitely not that. It can't be that or it ceases to be jazz. There's so much freedom, night to night, playing jazz and the level of musicianship is always exciting and fun."

Eventually, Smith cut down on studio work "and became much more focused on live touring with my own bands and other people like Mike Stern and Hiromi. I make myself available for these tours because it's so much fun. I had enough of the studio world. I've learned a lot, but at a certain point I wanted to do something else." He adds, "The problem these days is saying no. I don't want to over work. You can get crazy with too much work."

Touring is where musicians make money these days, with the recording industry diminished and people not buying music with the frequency they used to.

"The way that I can make a living is that I play with a lot of different people. As a sideman, I do well. As a band leader, that's another story. It's very difficult, especially as a drummer band leader, to keep a band working. My goal in that situation is to break even. Make the money that I'm paying the sidemen. We all make about the same amount. Hopefully, I won't lose money putting a tour together," says Smith. "That's the reality of my life as a bandleader. As a sideman, I do OK, and then I do the drum clinics and week-long workshops. That's where I can pay the bills.

"When it comes to record sales, the main place we sell albums is on tour during the gig. We make CDs so we have some new news to talk about in interviews and so we have new music to play and something the fans can take home after the gig. It's tough but I do it, like a lot of musicians do it, because we want that creative outlet and to document our music and our growth."

For Smith, staying busy, and producing great rhythms for living, breathing music, isn't going to stop any time soon. "I'm fortunate I've gotten a lot of good offers, so I have good choices for what gigs I want to take and what gigs I don't want to take." Quality tends to win out.
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