Vital Information – Vitalization (2007)

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From “Don’t Stop Believin'” to konnakul. What does that mean, you ask? Allow me to explain.

Journey, a band mostly known for gargantuan stadium anthems from the late-seventies to the mid-eighties, had a secret weapon in their ranks. Those who didn’t take their toilet breaks during the individual solo segment of Journey concerts might have picked up on it though. That weapon was their uncommonly virtuosic drummer with the common name, Steve Smith.

Taken as a whole, Smith’s 1979-85 stint in Journey really only amounted to a temporary diversion into mainstream rock, and if anything, constrained his abilities. Lead singer Steve Perry literally did Smith a favor by firing him (Perry supposedly wanted a “more soulful” drummer).

Perhaps in need of an episode on VH-1’s “Where Are They Now?”, Smith is doing just fine these days, thank you very much. He has become a major figure on the fusion jazz and even straight-ahead jazz scene, working with such heavies as Jean-Luc Ponty (pre-Journey), Mike Manieri and Steps Ahead, Allan Holdsworth, Stanley Clarke and Ahmad Jamal. He even took the great Buddy Rich’s chair as he led Rich’s old band at a smoking engagement at London’s famed Ronnie Scott’s club a few years back. In recent years, Smith and Buddy’s Buddies had evolved into a non-tribute straight-jazz outfit called Jazz Legacy.

But Smith’s primary vehicle of the last quarter century has been his own fusion outfit, Vital Information. Born out of Smith’s 1983 first solo album of the same name while he was still in Journey (a full year before Steve Perry came out with his own first solo album), Vitalization marks the 12th release under the Vital Information moniker.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Steve Smith talks about sitting behind the traps with Journey, Jean-Luc Ponty, the Buddy Rich Big Band, Ronnie Montrose and his jazz-fusion band Vital Information.]

V.I. has had an evolving cast of players aside from Smith, but has long been a drums-bass-guitar-keyboards quartet, playing fusion that is a lot more energetic and creative than smooth and uses healthy doses of world beat, swing and bop. Keyboardist Tom Coster has been in the band almost since the beginning; he’s the guy who earlier replaced Smith’s Journey bandmate Gregg Rolie in Santana. Original Chick Corea Elektric Band axeman Frank Gambale was also in Vital Information for a number of years, until this latest release. Since 2002, Barron Browne, also a Ponty alum, has undertaken the electric bass duties.

While V.I. has been pretty consistent from album to album, Smith’s intensive study of the unique percussion technique of southern India provided him with the impetus to give this latest Vital Information offering a more international flavor. One of the techniques he picked up is konnakul, a vocal percussion approach that sounds a lot like scatting. Some percussion instruments native to that region are also utilized in this release.

Vitalization also uses a few new faces, with Vinny Valentino filling in Gambale’s big shoes. but Valentino is no stranger to the scene, having been mentored by George Benson and played with some notables like John Pattitucci, Dennis Chambers and Bill Evans (the sax dude). Evans adds his tenor to four of the twelve tracks and other guest players are specialists in Indian percussion.

The two selections “Interwoven Rhythms-Synchronous” and “Interwoven Rhythms-Dialogue” with that konnakul percussive vocal scatting is an acquired taste I suppose, even though it’s applied flawlessly over a tough groove — and yours truly just hadn’t acquired the taste yet. Thankfully, these are the two shortest tracks on the album.

The old Vital that fans are more familiar with starts on the second track with Coster’s “Get Serious,” featuring some gnarly unison lines and supplemented nicely with two guest percussionists. “The Trouble With” is the first of four Valentino four tunes (as well as four more co-writes) on this record. It’s a tried and true number from Valentino’s own band with a funky, James Brown-style groove, and Coster’s B-3 sound gives it some greasy soul. Evans also spices things up. Valentino’s solo on it does ignite, but I can’t help but to think Gambale could have done better, as throughout the rest of the times a guitar solo was called for. Valentino is a solid guitar player nonetheless and writes consistent tunes.

“The Bottom Line,” an electric be-bop tune, is a treat to listen as all the soloists, Evans again included, ride on top of Browne’s walking bass. “Seven And A Half” is another product of Smith’s South Indian education, using a native-sounding 15/8, or a “7-1/2” beat as it is called in India. Guest percussionist Pete Lockett follows Smith’s rhythms with a kanjira (a South Indian frame drum). What’s most remarkable about this track is that the foreign rhythms are folded in seamlessly into a familiar American fusion groove.

“J Ben Jazz” is another Valentino gem. It’s got a stuttering, interesting chord progression. Browne lays down a tight bass line and throws in a pretty bass solo patterned after Jaco. Smith himself kills on his drum solo.

Coster’s “Groove Time” lives up it’s title, a mid-tempo, contemporary funk excercise. Nothing fancy here, just a vehicle for a little jamming. “Jimmy Jive” is the same tune, but given a Jimmy Smith-inspired soul-jazz organ combo treatment.

“You Know What I Mean” is notable by the tight integration between Browne and Smith throughout all of Smith’s shifting variations of the funkified beat. “The Closer” is the nine minute tour de force selection of the album, replete with a three-part suite. The first part is bop that features Valentino and Coster trading fours, the second segment moves more into rock territory and provides a stage for another inspired Browne solo, followed by Valentino’s smoker. The final part returns to a swinging mode.

On the last track, “Positano,” the band finally slows down to ballad speed. Valentino delivers some sweet-sounding chords while Coster answers with an equally romantic accordian. It’s a nicely appropriate, wind down ditty.

All told, Vitalization manages to keep Vital Information’s music evolving and somewhat exploratory without alienating its long time followers. I still don’t like the konnakol; at least not on record, it must be a sight to see, though. Nevertheless, Steve Smith demonstrates he’s not content with staying put and collecting royalty checks from his participation with a big-name rock band.

If his restless nature results in a product that occasionally doesn’t connect, it’s well worth it for the majority of the time that he does.

Purchase: Vital Information – Vitalization

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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