Steve Smith – Vitalive! (1991); The Best of GHS and The Best Of Steve Smith (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Steve Smith is a man with a common name and an uncommon ability to beat the skins. Looking back at his entire career, that 1978-85 stint with the superstar arena rock group Journey during its classic period looks like an aberration to Smith, who has made a name for himself outside of Journey as a sought-after sideman and a leader of acclaimed fusion and bop outfits.

A couple of years ago we took a hard look at Smith’s latest with his fusion band Vital Information, Vitalization. Smith hasn’t put out any new material since then, but in recent months there has been a total of three albums that together provide a triple delight retrospective for those wishing to explore the music and acumen of this amazing drummer. Two of these releases are “best of” compilations culled from Smith’s late 1990’s to mid-aughts tenure with the Tone Center label. Another album is a reissue of one of his earliest live documents with Vital Information. Collectively, these CD’s provide the perfect introduction into the colorful post-Journey journey of one Steve Smith.

Vital Information Vitalive!

Vitalive!, taken from a live date in 1989, was originally released on the Blue Note label in 1991 and has gone in and out of print over the years. Smith himself took it out of the vaults for the third time last September 15, but not before he remastered it and tacked on an alternate take of a track “Mac Attack.” This makes the third time the charm.

I have to admit, the very thought of a fusion date from 1989 made me cringe a little bit. This wasn’t the most creative time for the idiom, with very impersonal sounding production values and keyboards. My fears were largely alleviated when I spun Vitalive; the musicianship is too superb, the band too tight and underneath the modern melodies is a persistent undercurrent of swing. There were some more subtle reasons, too: the remastering job by Jim Brick evidently brought some warmness to the sound (I haven’t heard the original, but compared to other recordings from that time, this one doesn’t come off as flagrantly “eighties-ish.”)

[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.]

Another reason is that this was a rare time in the band’s history where an acoustic bass was used instead of an electric one. It was during this brief period that a twenty-three year old stand-up bassist fresh out of Stanford with an English Lit degree was playing in Smith’s band. Smith enthused that the bassist “was so strong on acoustic bass that the groove tunes felt very solid and his fresh approach to our music helped us develop a looser direction.” His name is Larry Grenadier, now one of hottest acoustic bass players in the world today. The band also had a sax player at the time (a position Smith would soon drop to make VI a quartet) and that duty was handled by little-noticed Larry Schneider. The rest of the band went on to form a stable nucleus of the group with Smith for years to come: former Santana keyboardist Tom Coster and Chick Corea Elektric Group guitar whiz Frank Gambale.

Starting with the first track “One Fight Up” I wasn’t sure if this wasn’t just a slightly more angular variety of smooth jazz, with Schneider and Coster sounding the part. But beginning with Coster’s solo and throughout much of the set, Coster make good use of an acoustic piano. As for Smith himself, he sizzles from beginning to end, whether it’s the funk of “Looks Bad, Feel Good,” the bouncy Brazilian groove of “Jave And A Nail” or the straight-ahead post-bop of Sammy Cahn’s standard “I Should Care” (which is totally acoustic, and Coster and Grenadier sparkle in their solos). Gambale is looser here than we was during his stint in Corea’s band at the same time; as I will argue again on the GHS release, he rarely sounds better than he does when playing with Smith. Schneider’s shining moment comes with his own lively composition “Mac Attack,” a virtuosic display of drums/bass/sax interplay that cooks intensely.

There are plenty of live Vital Information records on the loose, and I can’t recommend which is the best because I haven’t listened to the other ones. But it’s hard to imagine any of the others being much better than this one. As Smith himself proclaims, this incarnation “was the most ‘jazz’ version of Vital Information to date.” That strong jazz undercurrent churning underneath the fusion has helped make Vitalive! withstand the test of time a lot better than many other jazz-rock records of this period.

Purchase: Vital Information – Vitalive!

Frank Gambale/Stu Hamm/Steve Smith The Best of GHS

Smith has a reputation of being demanding on himself and inspiring his bandmates to push their abilities to the limit, too, but never does a Smith-associated project take that concept to the extreme to the extent his three records with Gambale and the boss bass player Stu Hamm did. Their GHS records were all about risk taking, virtuosity and creating in the moment. The compact trio setting allowed for that more than a larger band could. Most of the tracks they record started out as jams that were crafted into arranged and fully developed songs recorded live in the studio. This way, you get not only all the spontaneity and dynamism of a informal jam session among crackerjack musicians, but the rich, complex harmonies and ever-shuffling time signatures of fully-conceived songs.

The Best of GHS, which went on sale July 28, pulls together select tracks from the three albums these guys made together, Show Me What You Can Do, The Light Beyond and GHS 3. Don’t get me wrong, these generally aren’t pretty tunes, they are vehicles for ripping. And rip they do. Gambale, as I noted earlier, really thrives in this setting as he does with the Vital Information band. He goes legato like Allan Holdsworth, rips through lightning-fast metal-blues lines like Jeff Beck, plays chunky jazz chords with elegance and pulls a wide assortment of other tricks from his bag of fretwork strategies. Hamm is not a “lead” bassist or “rhythm” bassist, he’s both of those, often at once. Like Gambale, his arsenal is limitless and in this challenging environment. He listens closely to what the other are doing and finds his spots to play the right role at the right time. Smith often deceives listeners into thinking that he has three arms and three legs.

Most of the songs follow the same, balls-to-the-wall blueprint, but there are a few change-ups. A solo performance a piece for each of the band members are brief, but only Gambale’s searching, gentle acoustic piece “Isle Of Few” deserves a longer rendition. “Geo 100” sports a cool, funky groove that Hamm and Smith have firmly locked down. “The Challenger” is another spot where Gambale pulls out the acoustic guitar, but is joined by the others this time on a spirited, Return To Forever type tune.

So, GHS isn’t the kind of fusion jazz for the weak-willed. It’s in-your-face virtuosity, but you can’t say you weren’t warned. If you’re like me, you’ll have your moods for it, and when the mood is right, there’s few who play intense jazz-rock better than this group of cats.

Steve Smith The Best Of Steve Smith – The Tone Center Collection

The prior two records showcase two distinct sides of Steve Smith; The Best Of Steve Smith – The Tone Center Collection attempts to pull together all the sides of Smith where he led or was otherwise involved in a straight jazz or fusion outfit from 1998 to 2005. In the span of these seven short years, the drummer’s list of such bands is long: Vital Information, GHS, Flashpoint (quartet with Dave Liebman), Buddy’s Buddies (traditional jazz quintet in the spirit of drumming legend Buddy Rich), Vital Tech Tones (Steve Henderson, Victor Wooten), a quartet with Mahavishnu Orchestra violinist Jerry Goodman, trio with Larry Coryell and Coster on Hammond B-3, and Count’s Jam Band (a septet also featuring Coryell).


Twelve tracks were selected for this diverse cross-section. Despite all the different configurations and styles (all within the jazz realm), the album is surprisingly coherent. It’s hard to put my finger on why, but it’s probably the relentless sense of swing coming from Smith and the strong grooves found on most selections. Even on the straight-jazz Buddy’s Buddies selections of “Nutville” and “Ya Gotta Try,” the energy and interplay matches that of the challenging fusion numbers. Possibly understanding that there was a Best of GHS album being planned at about the same time, only “Geo 100” is repeated from that compilation. Other delights include the crisp bop of “Wrong Is Right” from the meeting with Coryell and Coster, the lazy, lean funk of Vital Tech Tones’ “Drums Stop, No Good” and the Latin-tinged fusion of “Caliente” with Goodman, keyboardist/harmonica player Howard Levy and Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge.

Released on August 18, this smorgasbord of a very creative period in Smith’s career would make the ideal first stop for digging into his music. For those smitten by the Vital Information and GHS tracks, see the two other albums discussed abo

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