Something Else! Interview: Steve Smith, of Journey and Vital Information


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Drummer Steve Smith is in the midst of a flurry of activity in advance of the 30th anniversary of his jazz group Vital Information. The first VI album appeared in 1983, even as his tenure with the melodic rock band Journey reached its chart-topping zenith. Smith eventually left Journey to pursue jazz, his first true love, and will commemorate that with the release of three albums over a two-year period.

The initial 30th anniversary VI album will be an unreleased archival concert from 2007, a period that saw guitarist Vinny Valentino join Vital Information, alongside long-time members Tom Coster on keyboard and Baron Browne on bass. “We recently found a recording we didn't even know we had," Smith said. He then plans a release culled from live dates this October with a new East Coast-based incarnation of the group called Steve Smith and Vital Information—NYC Edition featuring Andy Fusco on sax, Mark Soskin on keyboard along with Browne and Valentino. Finally, Smith says he intends to assemble various members of the group from both coasts for a new studio album. “I look forward to what we come up with creatively," Smith said, in a free-ranging SER Sitdown. “I am always interested in developing new ideas and Vital Information is my workshop. At the same time, I let the band members express themselves in the music."

Smith, in the midst of a tour with pianist Hiromi behind a well-received new album called Voice, also discussed an amazing career that includes stops with Journey, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ronnie Montrose and the Buddy Rich Big Band ...

Nick DeRiso: You started out where you are right now, as a jazz drummer. Long before joining Journey, there was a stint with Jean-Luc Ponty. What was that like?

Steve Smith: It was October 1976 and I was a 22-year-old college kid when I started with Jean-Luc. I did my first tours around the world with him and learned so much by having the opportunity to play with great players night after night. When I first started with Jean-Luc Ponty, I hadn't played much fusion music, but I had heard a lot of fusion. At that time, I was going to jazz clubs and seeing bands like the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Billy Cobham's first touring band with Mike and Randy Brecker, Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Weather Report. I had those albums and loved that music. Before Ponty I was still mainly involved with playing big band jazz, and the jazz influenced by Miles Davis and John Coltrane from the 1960s. That was my focus, as an up-and-coming drummer. I hadn't really played fusion yet. When I played with Jean-Luc Ponty, fusion playing came to me very naturally—just as it came to the first generation of fusion drummers like Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Lenny White and Alphonse Mouzon. They were jazz drummers who started playing bigger kits with more of a rock and funk approach to jazz. It came very naturally to me, and I really enjoyed playing on the big drums in a powerhouse kind of setting.

DeRiso: But then you heard Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker and John Bonham, rock drummers who incorporated the syncopations and shadings of jazz.

Smith: From my perspective, it's more like they were jazz drummers playing rock and they eventually became known as rock drummers. If you think about the time that they were young kids growing up, the famous drummers were jazz drummers. If you grew up in the time of 1950s and early 1960s, there were no rock drum heroes. Growing up, your role models were Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello, Max Roach—people like that. Most interviews you read with guys like Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker or John Bonham, they say they were listening to jazz drummers. It just so happens that they grew up in a culture, and a time, when they—and their peers, guys like Jack Bruce, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton—were playing the music of the youth culture. Early rock was very close to jazz and blues and in those days; there was a tremendous freedom in the music that no longer exists. So, I wouldn't say they were rock drummers who incorporated jazz. I think they were jazz-inspired drummers who wrote the book on how to play rock. They are now regarded as the early generation of rock drummers.

DeRiso: Is it true that you first came to the attention of Journey while touring as an opening act with Ronnie Montrose? You were still drumming in a flamboyant, fusion style at that point.

Smith: Ronnie Montrose had just put out a solo album called Open Fire, an instrumental record inspired by Jeff Beck. That was in the air in those days, and Ronnie went in that direction, as well. He encouraged me to play in the rock/fusion style. That's what was appropriate for that music. The guys in Journey first saw me play with Ponty. They came to see Ponty when we played at the Aurora Ballroom in Cleveland. Then about a year later, they saw me with Ronnie Montrose. I hadn't really developed a rock style yet.

DeRiso: You must have had to completely rethink the way you worked as a drummer.

Smith: The swinging part, the groove factor, having a nice swing feel—that is a universally accepted ingredient of what makes music groove. That was one of the things they liked about my playing. What was different for me was approaching the music from a compositional rather than an improvisational point of view. With Journey I came up with drum parts that were a compositional part of the song, which was very different than what I did before. I had been playing a time-feel for jazz groups or fusion groups that didn't necessarily have a repetitive beat. With Journey, I had to focus my playing on the orchestration of the song and then stick to those parts. That was a change for me and I found it interesting, as I had never done that before.

DeRiso: You were there for both of Journey's key early music-making periods. Which did you prefer, the Gregg Rolie or the Jonathan Cain editions?

Smith: I wouldn't say I have a favorite period. All of my time with the group was interesting, in different ways. When I first started playing with Journey, the first two years approximately, we were still playing a fair amount of the original Journey material—instrumentals from the first three albums: Journey, Look Into The Future and Next. Those were really a lot of fun to play. I loved that music. That incarnation had a particular sense of groove that was very deep—a deep pocket and a settled feel. Gregg Rolie particularly added to that, because he was essentially a Hammond B-3 player coming out of a blues tradition and background and, of course, he was a mainstay in the original Santana. He brought a nice groove sense to the group. Steve Perry was very insistent on the feel being open and relaxed, keeping it rock, but with a funky groove as well. Steve had a great sense of time and feel, and he had the control to place his vocals exactly where he wanted them in relation to the groove. That is a rare quality. That particular incarnation of the band had a nice character that I really enjoyed. After that, things progressed in a more pop direction. Jonathan Cain brought in a more universally appealing songwriting approach. There was a special kind of magic with him in the band. We were able to write some very globally accepted hit tunes that were just fantastic. That incarnation had its own rhythmic concept, from my point of view, it was a little more driving and intense. At that point we began to play large stadiums and there was a necessity to fill a bigger space with sound. Things felt different, because we were trying to fill up more space with our energy so we tended to push harder in an effort achieve that. The band in the early incarnation played smaller places, so comparatively, the playing was more intimate and relaxed.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Steve Smith's former band mate Gregg Rolie discusses his Hall of Fame career as a founding member of Santana and Journey.]

DeRiso: As Journey reached its commercial peak in the early 1980s, you launched Vital Information. By then, Journey had become increasingly known for these massive arena-rock ballads. Did you have a newfound sense of freedom, getting a chance to swing again?

Smith: While I was touring with Journey, I definitely focused my attention on playing that music to the very best of my ability, but there was still a lot of music in me that I felt like I wanted to express—and Journey wasn't the place to do that. Journey had a particular sound and direction, I could play in that direction, and it was satisfying to a degree, but I also wanted to play jazz with jazz musicians. The act of improvising with like-minded musicians is something that is essential to my wellbeing. Even though Journey had a very busy yearly schedule—we'd spend nine months on the road, be home for three months of writing and recording and then we'd go right back out on the road again—there would be a week here or there where I'd get together with some of my old friends from high school and Berklee College of Music days and play some gigs around Boston. That's how Vital Information came together.

DeRiso: This reunion of childhood pals wasn't so much a departure, then, as it was a return to your roots after years of huge tours behind platinum rock records. Smith: It wasn't a departure at all. I've had some people say things to me like, “that's great that you learned how to play jazz after being a rock drummer," or some equally ridiculous statements. Playing jazz is my orientation to playing music. Jazz has its own language and syntax and it is close to impossible to learn if you don't grow up with it. Playing any form of music requires study and immersion to play it well. But as a jazz-oriented musician, it is not too difficult to learn to play the other branches of U.S. music like blues, gospel, country, funk or rock. That's because jazz incorporates all of those roots and more. Anyway, to answer your question: I had been continuing to play jazz throughout my time with Journey but it was in clubs and under the radar when it came to the Journey fans. My two musician friends from the high school years in the Boston area were bassist Tim Landers and saxophonist Dave Wilczewski. The three of us had been playing together since 1971. By the early 1980s each of us had written a lot of tunes that we would play with various guitar players through the years. We'd get together with Dean Brown, Mike Stern, Daryl Stuermer or Barry Finnerty. That was the foundation of Vital Information. I was playing with a different group out on the West Coast, the Tom Coster Band with keyboard player Tom Coster and bassist Randy Jackson. Randy was a jazz/fusion bassist who had come up with Billy Cobham; now people know him as a judge on American Idol. I would play with both bands on the Journey off times. I recorded two albums with the Tom Coster Band in the early 1980s and by 1982 my East Coast group had the music prepared for the first Vital Information album, which we recorded in January of 1983. Columbia released that album, Vital Information, later in '83. In September of 1983, I did an extended U.S. tour with Vital Information—and by then we had worked up enough material for a second album called Orion, which we recorded at the end of the tour. By the time I left Journey in 1985, we had already put out two albums and had much of the material ready for our third album, Global Beat, which had a Latin, Caribbean, world-percussion direction.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Journey's new album is an amalgam of the band's two classic periods, making it as intriguing as anything the group has done in a long time.]

DeRiso: What was it like to fill in for Buddy Rich in his alumni group? He was known as such a big personality. Was it difficult to fill his shoes?

Smith: Buddy Rich was an amazing virtuoso with a lot of finesse and musicality. When I was first approached to play with the Buddy Rich Big Band, and later the small group Buddy's Buddies, it was both intimidating and inspiring, it gave me a push to develop my own playing to another level. I was very familiar and comfortable with the big band approach; that was nothing new to me. It was one of the first things I developed as young musician. I knew many of the musicians who had played with Buddy; I had played with a lot of them in Boston with the Wayne Naus Big Band and the Lin Biviano Big Band. Before I started playing dates with the Buddy Rich Big Band in the early '90s I spent some long practice days fine-tuning my chops and memorizing the arrangements. Starting in 1997 we continued to play and record as Buddy's Buddies, a quintet that played scaled down arrangements of Buddy's charts. That group eventually morphed into Steve Smith's Jazz Legacy, and we've put two albums out under that name. As Jazz Legacy we were no longer limited to playing music associated with Buddy Rich. With Jazz Legacy, we incorporating music associated with many of the other great jazz drummer icons—Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, all of my favorite jazz drummers growing up.

DeRiso: After a brief reunion with Journey in the 1990s, you returned to jazz with a vengeance on the Tone Center label projects. Describe that period.

Smith: If you look at the time between 1985 when I left Journey and 1996 when we had the Journey reunion, there was an 11-year period before I played on the Journey album Trial by Fire. Over that period, I was band member of Steps Ahead, a New York-based jazz group led by vibe player Mike Mainieri that featured Michael Brecker and Mike Stern. As a bandleader, I was touring with Vital Information and I had built a career as a session musician and had played on albums from Bryan Adams to Mariah Carey to Savage Garden. At the same time, I was doing drum clinics and had built a pretty varied career. When the Trial by Fire album came along, I had to take a two-year hiatus from all of that and become a Journey band member once again. It took over my life, 100 percent. After that was over, I made a decision that I wanted to focus on myself as an artist. I wanted to be in charge of my own musical destiny and development playing mainly my own music as a band leader, or work with musicians that I felt were exceptional and I would grow as an artist in the process of playing with them. The first thing I did was turn down most session work that was offered to me so I could focus on my own recording and touring. I got an agent to start booking my Vital Information band so we could tour on a regular basis. Also at that time I was contacted by Mike Varney, the owner of Shrapnel Records; he wanted to start a fusion label that he called Tone Center. Mike wanted me to conceptualize, organize, produce and record albums for that label. He gave me free rein to put together these projects. It was a very active period for me, creatively. It took a lot of energy but it was exciting, a lot of fun and an amazing situation. Between 1997 and 2005, I put out two to three albums a year for Tone Center, all with incredible line-ups of musicians. In the end I had organized, written for, played on and produced a total of 16 albums. Mike Varney recently released a compilation of those years called The Best Of Steve Smith—The Tone Center Collection. During that period, I got my own career moving forward as Steve Smith the artist and bandleader—and I have continued with that momentum to the present day. I realized I couldn't do everything. I couldn't be rock-band member, a sideman, session musician, bandleader, producer and clinician. It was too much work without a singular direction, as each one of those could be its own career. Now, my focus is on leading my different bands, along with an occasional collaboration that feeds me musically, like George Brooks Summit or Raga Bop Trio.

DeRiso: Any plans to work with the guys from Journey again?

Smith: In fact, recently I played on Neal Schon's new instrumental solo album. We have a history and a very good creative chemistry.

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This story appears courtesy of Something Else!.
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