Steve Smith celebrates 30 years of Vital Information: ‘Always discovering new directions’

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Even while he was still a member of the platinum-era edition of Journey, Steve Smith began making his way back to jazz. Now, 30 years later, Smith’s ready to celebrate that bold return to his childhood musical passion with the band Vital Information.

He will release a trio of commemorative Vital Information recordings, beginning with this month’s Live! One Great Night. This 2012 project focuses on an unreleased archival concert from five years ago featuring then-new guitarist Vinny Valentino, along with long-time members Tom Coster on keyboards and Baron Browne on bass.

At the same time, Vital Information remains a vibrant collaborative experience for Smith: “I’m always discovering new ideas and directions in music and Vital Information is my main vehicle of expression,” he tells us, in the latest SER Sitdown. “I get to try my ideas and develop my concepts.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Steve Smith talks about reuniting with Neal Schon for a new 2012 project — and just how underrated the initial fusion-inspired edition of Journey still is.]

So, look for still more new music on the horizon, as well: Smith plans a pair of 2013 releases culled from live and studio dates held last fall with a new East Coast-based incarnation of the group called Steve Smith and Vital Information-NYC Edition featuring Andy Fusco on sax and Mark Soskin on keyboards. “Those two musicians are from my groups Buddy’s Buddies and Jazz Legacy,” Smith says. “With them in the group, we can play the classic Vital Info tunes along with the book of Jazz Legacy and Buddy’s Buddies.”

From there, Smith says he will combine members from the two groups for yet another studio recording. Smith’s sweeping 30th anniversary celebration begins, however, with the release of the newly discovered Live! One Great Night in the USA on May 15, 2012, through the BFM Jazz label and then in Europe on June 1 via Q-Rious Music – with an alternate cover image …

NICK DERISO: Tell us more about the new live project with Vital Information. What made that particular night so special?
STEVE SMITH: With the 30th anniversary of Vital Information coming up, I started looking for documentation of the various bands I’ve had over the years – and I remembered one night on tour in 2007 when we played a small club in Oregon and we did a webcast. After many emails and phone calls, I was able to track down the audio and video of the performance. After listening to it, I was very happy to hear that we had played a very strong set, alive and spontaneous, with creative grooves and inspired interaction and improvisation. It documents the early years of the current line-up with Vinny Valentino joining Tom Coster, Baron Browne and myself. We’re releasing it as a CD+DVD on BFM Jazz, so you can also see us playing the set on the DVD.

NICK DERISO: Were there new things to discover in the way Vital Information approached the material?
STEVE SMITH: Most of the compositions on Live! One Great Night were originally recorded on the studio albums Come On In and Vitalization. If you compare the performances on this release to the original recordings, you’ll hear significant musical growth – both individually and collectively. Our music allows for individual expression and re-invention. Every night on the bandstand, we want to surprise each other with new ideas and in the process keep our audience in the moment with us.

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

Steve Smith and Vital Information in 1983

NICK DERISO: In some ways, it’s difficult to believe that it’s already been three decades since Vital Information was founded.
STEVE SMITH: The core of the original line-up started while I was in high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tim Landers (bass) and Dave Wilczewski (sax) and I met when we played together in a local Boston area big band. By 1977, I was touring with Jean-Luc Ponty, Tim was with Al DiMeola and Dave was with Freddie Hubbard. We would meet in Boston once a year for a reunion gig, using different guitar players like Dean Brown, Daryl Stuermer or Barry Finnerty. After I was in Journey for a few years, I was able to get a Columbia record deal for my first solo album – and that’s when we recorded Vital Information, which featured Tim, Dave and myself along with guitarists Dean Brown and Mike Stern.

NICK DERISO: This was in the period after Journey’s multi-platinum Escape LP, right? You were playing jazz in between giant stadium tours.
STEVE SMITH: We recorded that album in January 1983, and released the record in the summer. That September, in between Journey tours, we toured the USA with the Dutch guitarist Eef Albers replacing Mike Stern, who was on the road with both Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius. In fact, we played some co-bills with Jaco’s band on that tour. At the end of that tour we recorded Orion (1984), our second album. After that, I just kept it going always following my muse and trying new ideas.

NICK DERISO: How has Vital Information’s sound changed over the years?
STEVE SMITH: On Global Beat (1987), Tom Coster joined us on keyboards and I integrated hand percussion and steel drums into the sound of the band. The next album, Fiafiaga (1988), continued with the Global Beat direction and we also started experimenting with computer programming and playing to quantized tracks. At that time, Tim Landers was very busy with his career and Kai Eckhardt played bass with us for a while. Also, the guitar virtuoso Frank Gambale joined us on Fiafiaga. Shortly after we made Fiafiaga, I played a local San Francisco with a very young Larry Grenadier on the acoustic bass. I asked him to join VI and he played with us for a year, along with a great sax player named Larry Schneider. You can hear that powerhouse jazz version of the group on Vitalive! (1990), which has recently been re-mastered and rereleased. I met the amazing bassist Jeff Andrews while touring with Steps Ahead in the early ’90s and he joined us for Easier Done Than Said (1992) and Ray Of Hope (1996).

NICK DERISO: More recently, we’ve heard Vital Information become more groove focused.
STEVE SMITH: We used some quantized keyboards on Easier Said Than Done, and started moving away from them on Ray Of Hope – and eventually I felt that approach wasn’t right for us and we re-invented ourselves as a more organic, groove-oriented band with Where We Come From (1997). Baron Browne joined us on bass in 1998, which further solidified our more funk-oriented approach. We recorded Live Around The World (2000), Show ’Em Where You Live (2001) and Live From Mars (2002). With the recording Come On In (2004), I started introducing Indian rhythms into our music. On Vitalization (2007), Vinny Valentino joined us on guitar and I featured my konnakol chops along with integrating more Indian rhythms into the music.

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