Gimme Five: Steve Smith on songs with Journey, Jean-Luc Ponty, Vital Information

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On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to Steve Smith, who’s had memorable tenures with Journey and Jean-Luc Ponty and now leads the fusion jazz group Vital Information.

Find out how Tony Williams’ drumming on a legendary Miles Davis fusion album influenced his approach for a hit song by Journey. Go inside the sessions for Ponty’s seminal Enigmatic Ocean, where songs where practiced in the same order as they appeared on the album. Smith also talks about how an age-old traditional south Indian style of rhythm singing has captured his imagination. And how the collaborative jam sessions that he once participated in with Journey are still a central part of his creative songwriting process …

“INTERWOVEN RHYTHMS/SYNCHRONOUS,” with Vital Information (VITALIZATION, 2007): One of the most wildly imaginative moments on Vitalization, as Smith began his on-going exploration into the intriguing South Indian vocal rhythmic tradition called konnakol. (This album is also notable for the addition of George Benson-acolyte Vinny Valentino on guitar.) The uptempo, deeply funky “Synchronous,” which opens this 2007 project, underscores once more how willing Smith has been to take his post-Journey career to new vistas of stylistic experimentation.

Smith: I was introduced to playing Indian rhythms in 2001 simply by doing some playing with a tabla player from India. The next summer, I was teaching at a drum camp in Germany, and there was a teacher from south India teaching the fundamentals of Indian rhythms — and I went to his class every day. That’s when I was introduced to the basic syllables of konnakol and some of the basics of their rhythmic theory. I was fascinated by the rhythms and the concepts. I started to practice konnakol, the south Indian vocal rhythmic art form, and slowly started applying the rhythms to the drumset. In 2003 I started playing with the great tabla master Zakir Hussain, and over the next few years I gained a lot of experience and more rhythmic knowledge by performing with him. By 2005, I started to bring that into Vital Information. By the time we recorded Vitalization, I had gotten to the point where I was able to recite konnakol and play the drums at the same time. That took a lot of work to develop that independence, but I eventually got to where I could do both. Since then, my interest and abilities with konnakol and Indian rhythms have continued to develop.

[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.]

“LOVIN,’ TOUCHIN,’ SQUEEZIN,'” with Journey (EVOLUTION, 1979): A true story from composer/singer Steve Perry, who in the liner notes to Journey’s Time3 compilation recalls seeing his girlfriend give another man this lingering kiss goodbye before he sped away in a Corvette. Perry called “Lovin,’ Touchin,’ Squeezin,'” with its nifty stuttering rhythm signature and soaring nah-nah-nah conclusion, “love justice.” This would become the first Top 20 hit for Journey.

Steve Smith: That rhythm is a simple 12/8 blues shuffle, a very traditional old-school blues feel. The song developed as a jam started by Steve Perry playing the bass. Actually, that song is reminiscent of a Sam Cooke song called “Nothing Can Change This Love”; Steve was very influenced by the great Sam Cooke. When Journey worked on writing new songs it was a collaborative effort, the band wrote collectively in a rehearsal room. The music would develop in a jam session-style situation. Most of Journey’s music was developed collectively at first and then fine-tuned into songs. I learned a lot from that situation and continue to write like that to this day. Most material for the Tone Center albums was written that way, as is much of Vital Information’s music. It’s an effective way to write because it makes the most of the creative collaboration of all of the musicians involved.

“ENGIMATIC OCEAN,” with Jean-Luc Ponty (ENIGMATIC OCEAN, 1977): A multi-part title suite that served as a highlight during one of the French fusion violinist’s best recordings. Guitarists Allan Holdsworth and Daryl Stuermer play with inventive passion throughout, but it’s the insightful and propulsive work of a young Smith — working on his initial long-player — that might be the most impressive element of all.

Smith: For me, it was landmark album because it’s the first album that I ever recorded! I had done a little bit of recording when I was coming up in Boston, but it was the first time I was ever in the studio playing on a complete album. I was 22-years-old and had left Berklee at the beginning of my seventh semester when I got the gig with Ponty. Jean-Luc had us learn new music, as all good musicians did back then, by writing charts, there were no computer demos in those days. He wrote very good charts for all of us and left room for us to interpret his music. When we recorded Enigmatic Ocean, the band rehearsed for about one week, then went into the studio and played the music literally as you hear it on the recording. We actually recorded the music in the same sequence that the songs appear on the album. Usually, you record 10 songs then you decide how to sequence them. Jean-Luc had the whole presentation figured out. Over the course of a few days, we played the album. There was no overdubbing. We played live in the studio and you hear our performances as they happened. I do think that many people regard that album as a classic Jean-Luc Ponty album. The line-up was powerful with Allan Holdsworth, Daryl Steurmer, Allan Zavod and Ralphe Armstrong, along with Jean-Luc and myself, and the compositions and performances have an enduring appeal.

“DUBAI DANCE,” with Raga Bop Trio (RAGA BOP TRIO, 2010): A standout track from Smith’s project last year with saxophonist George Brooks and guitarist Prasanna. They begin with a foundation of fusion jazz then begin exploring outward into a rhythmic and melodic lineage found in Indian classical music. Brooks, a New York City native currently living in Berkeley, Calif., is an expert in north Indian Hindustani music, while the Chennai, India-born Prasanna is fluent in south India’s Carnatic tradition. Together, they completed this album in a three-day burst of creativity.

Smith I’m very happy with the Raga Bop Trio album. It’s a unique approach, a trio with guitar, drums and sax. It’s very challenging to play in that setting and I think we made a nice album. We did a very extensive tour to promote that album, and we now have a DVD in the works. It was filmed for a label called Drum Channel, and they will release it late in 2011. The DVD will feature a live performance of the group plus I filmed an educational component (found at explaining how I applied the Indian rhythms to the drumset.

“SEND HER MY LOVE,” with Journey (FRONTIERS, 1983): One of four Top 40 hits found on this album, “Send Her My Live” went to No. 23 on the U.S. pop charts. The lonesome anthem is notable for more than an atmospheric turn by Neal Schon on guitar, however. It also includes perhaps the most notable drumming contribution on Journey’s string of familiar ballads from Smith, who adds a slyly involving polyrhythm. Frontiers was the last full-length project Smith would work on with Journey before the one-off reunion Trial by Fire in 1996.

Smith: The rhythm for that song was inspired by the Joe Zawinul composition “In A Silent Way” from the Miles Davis album In A Silent Way. The drummer on that was Tony Williams and he played quarter notes with a cross-stick on the snare drum – a very hypnotic groove. It was one of the first jazz-rock albums, and had a particular freshness because of the use of Fender Rhodes and an open modal playing style. That was an album I’d listened to and digested, and this is a great example of drawing upon your background to come up with ideas to inspire you how to play a particular song. With “Send Her My Love,” that became an essential feel for the song — that quarter-note, cross-stick rhythm, and that comes straight from “In A Silent Way.”

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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