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Profile: Steve Smith and the Vital Information

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Steve Smith and Vital Information - SUBMITTED PHOTO

Steve Smith, one of the planet's best, most versatile drummers, will perform with his renowned jazz-fusion band, Vital Information, Wednesday, June 20, at the Jazz Kitchen as part of the band's anniversary tour, which celebrates 30 consecutive years of progressive music-making.

Smith, who gained international recognition through his seven-year stint with rock band Journey (1978-85), formed the band in 1982 to provide a vehicle for his jazz explorations.

Although often considered a drummer's drummer, Smith, whose background encompasses virtually all of American music, as well as, more recently, the rhythms of India, is an engaging, communicative performer able to reach musicians and non-musicians alike.

Smith began drumming in Massachusetts in 1963, at age 9. By high school he was playing in both a professional concert band and a local college jazz band. In 1972, he attended Berklee College of Music, remaining there until joining the Lin Biviano Big Band in 1974. Teaming up with Jean-Luc Ponty in 1976, he performed on the fusion violinist's hugely popular album Enigmatic Oceans (Atlantic, 1977). A brief tour with rocker Ronnie Montrose a year later led to his gig with Journey.

Vital Information has recorded on average one album every two years, using the song-writing method of "jam, rehearse and fine-tune the ideas into songs." This, Smith said, in an interview with Rhythm, a UK drum magazine, enables all members to contribute and "feel a part of the music and the direction." The latest album, LIVE! One Great Night, released in May to lead off the current tour, testifies to the method's effectiveness.

LIVE opens with "Seven and a Half," which is the song's bold time signature. While most musicians are at home in 4/4 and 3/4 time, and perhaps even 5/4 or 7/4, 7.5/4 is a separate beast. The song's easy-gliding funk-fusion groove, overlaid by Valentino's alluring strum pattern, creates an illusion of straight-four, which is only shattered when finger snapping lands the listener abruptly on the off beats.

Two cuts titled "Interwoven Rhythms," one a brighter Latin groove, the other a more relaxed funk, set up solid 4/4 foundations "interwoven" by waves of exotic chanting. These quick, articulate chants splinter the beat in every conceivable way, creating a mesmeric blending of East and West time concepts.

Besides being an award-winning performer, Smith is also one of music's most dedicated and articulate educators. His desire to "pass the torch to the younger generation" has engendered countless clinics and jazz drum camps, as well as several instructional DVDs, including the award winning 2003 "History of the U.S. Beat."

This beat, the "swing pulse," Smith said, is America's contribution to music, underlying all its musical genres. Early blues, gospel, country, R&B, funk, and rock 'n' roll, were all developed by "drummers who first recorded in those genres, [which] were all jazz drummers doing studio work."

A jazz background thus "allows one to see the common rhythmic thread that connects all those different genres."

It also enables one to create, to improvise, to make it up as one goes, which is what Vital Information is all about.

"Our music allows for individual expression and re-invention. We thrive on swing, groove and creativity," Smith said. "We want to surprise each other every night on the bandstand."

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