There have been some excellent groove-heavy jazz releases this year, most notably from Joey Baron, John Scofield, MMW and Galactic, but Vital Information's Where We Come From
may be the best of the bunch. This one offers 77 minutes of intense rhythmic fusion that's loosely influenced by the Meters and Booker T and the MGs.
Vital Information has gradually shed its jazz-lite tendencies to become a first-rate fusion ensemble. Drummer Steve Smith is the only original member in what is now a four-man all-star group. The current lineup was last heard from in 1996 on the catchy but substantial Ray of Hope
. Where We Come From
showcases four talented musicians who have enough confidence in their collective abilities to attempt a more low-tech approach. This release has Smith on drums, former Santana keyboardist Tom Coster playing B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes and accordion, Jeff Andrews on bass, and Australian Frank Gambale on guitars.
Drummer Smith has been one busy dude of late. In addition to his usual session work in pop, rock and country circles, he recently teamed with Victor Wooten and Scott Henderson to form the jazz-metal trio Vital Tech Tones
, and then with Larry Coryell and Tom Coster on the incendiary fusion release Cause and Effect,
also reviewed on this page. All three of Smith's 1998 CDs are outstanding, but Where We Come From
gets the nod as my favorite.
Gambale is particularly impressive here, whether playing fuzzy-toned phrases on the funked-up "Dr. Demento," fast-paced blues on a swinging version of Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick," George Benson-style jazz on "First Thing This Morning," or Duke Levine-ish rock on "Bob." Gambale lends Vital Information a more pop-oriented sound than most fusion ensembles, but his accessible style enhances rather than detracts. He's an extremely versatile guitarist.
Coster's organ helps drive many of these cuts. The former Santana keyboardist plays both organ and accordian on the Cajun-spiced "Swamp Stomp," but most interesting is his inside-out accordian work on Ornette Coleman's "Happy House." Like Steve Smith's post-Journey work, Coster's playing has progressed from happy-jazz to fiery fusion in the years since he left Santana.
He and Gambale have never sounded better, and Smith and Andrews hold up the bottom end with enthusiasm and skill.
Where We Come From is a must-have for any fan of funky fusion.