Steve Smith, like Paul McCartney, has a solo career that’s way more extensive than the higher profile rock band he belonged to for a relatively short period of time, but he’ll always be known as that Journey drummer (or, to a Jean-Luc Ponty fan like me, that guy who drummed on Enigmatic Ocean). Thirty years ago while still a member of a red-hot Journey band and just a year removed from their biggest hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Smith was already establishing his music career away from pop, forming the jazz fusion outfit Vital Information, which released their first album in 1983. V.I. was then and remains now his “main vehicle of expression,” as he told SER’s Nick Deriso recently, and thirty years later the band is still going strong.
To mark the anniversary, Smith is planning a trio of new albums, the first one being a live record documenting the stage prowess of his current Vital Information lineup. Live! One Great Night was taped in 2007 at a small venue in Oregon in support of their then-new and still the latest studio effort, Vitalization. Accordingly, six of these nine songs come from that album. The roster for this date, like Vitalization, featured newest member guitarist Vinny Valentino, with Tom Coster on keys and Baron Browne on electric bass.
Overlap doesn’t mean redundancy when it comes to a Vital Information, as we found in appraising a much earlier live set, Vitalive!. Like that album recorded some eighteen years before, One Great Night is an occasion to reveal what a terrifically tight and vibrant unit Vital Information has been despite several personnel changes over the years, and what might be most impressive is their ability to perform up to the high standards they establish in the sterile studio environment.
Smith’s recent explorations into the vintage music of south India are documented here, a type of Indian music largely unexplored by Western artists. The konnakul vocal percussion technique introduced by Smith on Vitalization shows up on the two “Interwoven Rhythms” songs taken from that album. I stated back then it was something I struggled to embrace but hearing it again live, I’m starting to get it. On the first Konnakul track, “Interwoven Rhythms-Synchronous,” it’s quite an amazing thing to hear both of the vocalists (Smith and Valentino) get through the tricky vocal patterns in perfect unison, live. Moreover, Smith is alternately playing a complementing rhythm to it and in unison with it. For “Interwoven Rhythms-Dialogue,” a call and response of a different kind emerges between Smith’s konnakul and Valentino’s scatting over his guitar lines, which kind of brings home the point of konnakul: it’s really a percussive form of scatting.
Some songs are at its core straight jazz songs, only played with electronic instruments. As the guy playing those fusion-ish keyboards, Coster is the key link making the bridge from rock-jazz to real jazz. While Smith swings like mad on selections “Time Tunnel” and “The Closer,” Coster applies bop phrasings to his modern instruments, and goes greasy soul-jazz with organ sermonizing over Smith’s shuffle on “Jimmy Jive,” opening the door to tradition for those music enthusiasts weaned on rock…much as Enigmatic Ocean did for me in the late 70s. This band can bring down the funk just as expertly, as evidenced by smooth runs on knotty grooves such as “Cat Walk,” “The Trouble With,” and “Seven And A Half” (see video of a later live performance of same song below).
Live! One Great Night is not just sound, it’s sights as well: an accompanying DVD presents the video of the same gig. There isn’t a lot of production glitz to it, but there’s none really needed when the performances themselves provide all the glitter needed to make it worthwhile viewing.
Though concentrated on recent material with the most recent line-up, One Great Night serves as a great reminder to the band’s three decade legacy. Vital Information has shown once again that seriously elaborate fusion jazz created and performed by seriously good studio musicians can be delivered on stage with compulsion and freakish fun.