Steve Smith: Drummer For All Seasons

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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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