Journey bandmates Steve Smith and Neal Schon reunite, find ‘an immediate chemistry’

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Steve Smith left Journey to focus on jazz, his first musical love, in the late 1990s – but he has remained close with the band’s co-founding guitarist. That relationship was rekindled recently when Smith sat in on the sessions for Neal Schon’s forthcoming solo project.

Originally invited to put down rhythm tracks for four tracks over two days, the two reconnected on such a deeply resonant level that Smith ended up performing on 11 tracks as the session stretched into four magical days.

Interestingly, the results don’t so much mirror their sound together with Journey – which coincided with singer Steve Perry’s arrival and a shift into platinum-selling arena rock in the 1980s – as it does the incendiary fusion of the group’s original incarnation with frontman Gregg Rolie and drummer Anysley Dunbar.

Smith talked to us, in the latest Something Else! Sitdown, about reuniting with his former Journey bandmate, about the way his passion for jazz informed later forays into mainstream success – and just how underrated that initial fusion-inspired edition of Journey still is …

NICK DERISO: I was very intrigued by the new pairing with former Journey bandmate Neal Schon. What led to that reunion?
STEVE SMITH: Neal and I have stayed in touch over the years and we’ve always enjoyed playing together. Neal has been very busy with Journey for many years now and, when he had a recent break from their schedule, he gave me a call to see if I wanted to play on a four tracks for a new instrumental solo album he was working on. I thought that sounded like a good idea, so I agreed to come to Fantasy Studios in the Bay Area and record for two days. I ended up playing the four songs in one day, so we started jamming because he didn’t have any more tunes written yet. I ended up staying three more days and we finished 11 tracks in that time.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Drummer Steve Smith goes in-depth on songs from throughout his career, offering insights into recordings with Journey, Jean-Luc Ponty and Vital Information.]

NICK DERISO: Was it difficult to recapture that musical symbiosis after so long apart? I have to think that the open-ended instrumental format provided an encouraging environment for the two of you.
STEVE SMITH: Neal and I have an immediate chemistry so we got right into a creative zone. First of all, Neal is a prolific writer. Every time he picks up a guitar, he plays something new — and with a little work that idea can be developed into a tune. We did the kind of jamming that we used to do with Journey, and then we experimented with moving the ideas around to create arrangements and finished songs. The keyboard player Igor Len was there to help flesh out the songs and, between the three of us, we just let the ideas come. We came up with the entire album in four days!

NICK DERISO: In many ways, it harkens back to the era just before your arrival in Journey, when Schon and Co. were making fiery explorations into fusion rock. Is there a part of you that wishes you could have played on their first trio of recordings?
STEVE SMITH: No, I wouldn’t have been ready for it first of all, and Aynsley Dunbar did a great job with that music. In those years, 1973-76, I was mainly playing big-band jazz and small-group jazz and hadn’t played any fusion, let alone rock. Neal and I are the same age, but he was a child prodigy and I became a professional musician after many years of study and practice. I think Journey was ahead of the curve in those years because fusion was just happening then, so for a rock band to incorporate that approach into their music was daring and innovative. The first edition of Mahavishnu Orchestra lived from 1971-73; the fusion version of Return to Forever had just started in ’73, which was the same year that Journey started.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Gregg Rolie discusses leaving behind a Hall of Fame career as a founding member of Santana to form Journey with Neal Schon – and then give it all up to start a family.]

NICK DERISO: Describe that period in your own musical growth.
STEVE SMITH: During those years, I was going to Berklee and focusing on absorbing the jazz concepts of the ’50s and ’60s, by studying the work of drummers like Buddy Rich and Max Roach and playing music inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane from their innovations in the 1960s. It wasn’t until I started playing with Jean-Luc Ponty in October 1976 that I started playing fusion music. I auditioned for the Ponty gig and got it, left Berklee and jumped into fusion playing with both feet! Growing up in the ‘60s, I understood rock and funk on a cultural level; it was natural for me, not much study required. I had studied and absorbed jazz by putting in the work, plus there was still a certain amount of great jazz in the culture in those years. When you mix all of that together, you get fusion and that kind of playing came naturally to me. I saw the birth of fusion and was able to see the great fusion groups first hand. The point is, I wasn’t ready to deal with Journey’s music until the time that that I joined the band in September 1978.

Here are details on Steve Smith’s upcoming 30th anniversary tour with his jazz band Vital Information. For more, go to: www.vitalinformation.com.
May 31 – Anthology Jazz Club – San Diego, CA
June 1 & 2 – Catalina Bar and Grill – Hollywood, CA
June 4 – Kuumbwa Jazz Center – Santa Cruz, CA
June 5 – Yoshi’s SF – San Francisco, CA
June 6 – Center for the Arts in Grass Valley – Grass Valley, CA
June 13 – Scullers Jazz Club – Boston, MA
June 14 – Ephrata Theatre – Ephrata, PA
June 15 & 16 – The Iridium Jazz Club – New York, NY
June 17 – Blues Alley – Washington, DC
June 18 & 19 – Nighttown – Cleveland Heights, OH
June 20 – The Jazz Kitchen – Indianapolis, IN
June 21 & 22 – Jazz Café Music Hall Center Jazz – Detroit, MI
June 23 – The Ottawa Tavern – Grand Rapids, MI
June 24 – Martyr’s – Chicago, IL
June 26 – Radisson Lackawanna Station – Scranton, PA
June 27 – Cape Cod Jazz Fest – Wequassett Resort – Harwich, MA

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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