“Journey? Do we LOOK like Journey?”

Even now, the two questions probably most asked of Steve Smith go something like, “Hey, are you the Steve Smith who played drums in Journey?” and “What’s Steve Perry like?”

This is clearly unfair to Smith, who spent ten years in Journey but 30 years in his own band, Vital Information, and One Great Night is a live CD/DVD celebration of its high energy, fusion infused performance. .

Yes, this is the same Steve Smith and while pounding the drum kit behind the hairy likes of Perry may have been Smith’s most high-profile gig, he has some serious jazz chops that includes stints with violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, bassist Stanley Clarke, pianist Hiromi, Steps Ahead and trumpeter Randy Brecker. Some of Smith’s finest recorded moments are on Luc-Ponty’s jazz-fusion masterpiece Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977). Smith once auditioned for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose and was offered a place in both bands. He opted to join Montrose, the opening act for Journey before it tabbed him as its drummer.

Smith’s approach to the drums incorporates breath-taking speed, raw power and impressive precision. He won Modern Drummer magazine’s Number One All-Around Drummer award four consecutive years and has been named as among the magazine’s Top 25 Drummers of All Time, so there’s little doubt this is a serious man with serious chops.

So why does it seem that when it comes time to name the best rhythmatists in the biz, Smith is overlooked? Is it because Vital Information is unapologetically a jazz fusion group and those are dirty words to purists? Is it it his rock and roll past? Is it those kinda, sorta, terrible Journey music videos?

All will be forgiven once One Great Night cues up and “Cat Walk” kicks in as Smith and his Vital Information band mates tear through over an hour’s worth of high-energy and innovative playing. The other information specialists, bassist Baron Browne, guitarist Vinnie Valentino and keyboardist Tom Coster are in perfect sync with Smith’s “lead drums.”

Sharp-eyed readers of album liner notes will puzzle over Smith and Valentino being credited as playing “konnakol.” If that’s an unfamiliar instrument that’s because it’s not an instrument at all. Konnakol is the South Indian art of performing percussion syllables vocally. Fans of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s Shakti project may be familiar with konnakol. To the untrained ear it might sound almost like scat-singing. “Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous” and “Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue” feature Smith and Valentino demonstrating their konnakol skills.

Fusion is notable for being propulsive and dynamic and as Smith’s drums are pushed to the front this occasionally pushes the other instruments to the background. This occasionally leads to a minimizing of Coster’s formidable keyboard skills. Browne and Valentino make fine contributions, though they seem be along for the ride. It isn’t that Smith doesn’t play well with others, but that playing with him is a like with having Lebron James on your side for a pick-up game of basketball: he’s so good at what he does even his teammates stand around watching him.

One oddity about One Great Night. For a live album the audience doesn’t seem all that lively. Perhaps that’s a result of a faulty sound mix or maybe the people were simply stunned by the virtuosity of Vital Information. Whether it’s listened to or viewed, One Great Night is absolute proof of how dominant a drummer Smith truly is. Maybe it’s time now to stop asking him what Steve Perry is like?
Tracks: Cat Walk; Time Tunnel; Interwoven Rhythms: Synchronous; Seven and a Half; Khanda West; The Trouble With; Interwoven Rhythms: Dialogue; The Closer: Jimmy Jive.

Personnel: Vinny Valentino: guitar, konnakol, voice; Baron Browne: bass; Steve Smith: drums, konnakol; Tom Coster: keyboards.

This review originally published at All About Jazz

Steve Smith and Vital Information: Giving the Drummer Some (Respect, that is)

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