Steve Smith and Vital Information: Vitalive!

John Kelman By

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Recorded on tour in 1988 and originally released in 1991, Vitalive! is, in the words of drummer Steve Smith, "the most 'jazz' version of Vital Information to date." It would be easy to argue with Smith, even though he's the group's leader, that VI has always been a jazz band, as evidenced by Come On In (Tone Center, 2004) and Vitalization (Hudson Music, 2007), the latter featuring Vinnie Valentin's more mainstream tone replacing longstanding fusion whiz Frank Gambale. But it's true that VI leaned, in its early days, more decidedly towards energetic, rock-informed fusion, rather than the cleaner approach evidenced on its recent discs.

The appearance of a 22 year-old FLY, before becoming the ubiquitous acoustic bassist he now is, is enough to lean Vitalive! towards a jazzier vibe. Still, with Gambale in tow alongside another longtime Vital Information alum, keyboardist Tom Coster, there's no shortage of high octane playing; the guitarist's high velocity sweep-picking is front-and-center during his extended, frenzied solo on "Looks Bad, Feels Good," viscerally propelled by Smith's pounding, thrill-a-minute bass drum as the group kicks into double time on a track that, largely, occupies a funky yet swinging space.

Grenadier has since become associated with modernistic mainstream music in Brad Mehldau's trio, his cooperative FLY group with drummer Jeff Ballard and saxophonist Mark Turner, and a recent live performance with Enrico Rava at Germany's Enjoy Jazz 2009. Here, he proves that acoustic bass can, indeed, be just as powerful as the electric variety in fusion-leaning music. The backbeat-driven opener, "One Flight Up," grooves hard, thanks to Grenadier's in-the-gut and in-the-pocket support. It's a vivid feature for Coster, whose piano solo suggests a seriously undervalued position in the jazz world, and saxophonist Larry Schneider, another under-appreciated player working in the trenches with a series of solo releases on the Danish Steeplechase label.

Elsewhere, the music ranges from "Jave and a Nail," with Smith and Grenadier locking into a delicate Latin groove, to the gently balladic "(What Lies) Beyond," featuring a lithe solo from Grenadier; the reggae-tinged "Johnny Cat"; buoyant "Island Holiday"; and a more decidedly jazz-centric take on Coster's classic collaboration with Carlos Santana, "Europa (Earth's Cry - Heaven's Smile)." "Europa" was first made famous during Coster's tenure with Santana on Moonflower (Columbia, 1977); here, Gambale's solo is of such emotive strength and harmonic invention that it manages to transcend the Mexican guitarist's now-iconic playing on the original.

Two versions of Schneider's fiery "Mac Attack" start with Smith alone, but turn into heated exchanges with the saxophonist before Grenadier enters to round out the trio, leading to Schneider's simple but rallying, blues-based riff. Along with a straight-ahead look at the Sammy Cahn/Axel Stordhal classic, "I Should Care," these tracks suggest, perhaps, Smith's assertion about Vitalization's more definitive jazz cred. True, it is; but this 65-minute live set possesses no shortage of the fusion energy that's defined Vital Information since inception. Thankfully back in print, it dovetails nicely with more recent Vital Information discs, and proves that Smith's jazzier proclivities have been there all along.

Track Listing: One Flight Up; Looks Bad, Feels Good; Jave and a Nail; (What Lies) Beyond; I Should Care; Mac Attack; Johnny Cat; The Perfect Date; Island Holiday; Europa (Earth's Cry - Heaven's Smile); Mac Attack (bonus track).

Personnel: Steve Smith: drums; Larry Schneider: saxophone; Tom Coster: keyboards; Frank Gambale: guitar, voice (7); Larry Grenadier; acoustic bass; Tom Coster Jr.: additional keyboards (1).

Title: Vitalive! | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Drum Legacy Records


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