With a name like Steve Smith and a resumé that defies our shared understanding of human capabilities, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed for assuming there are three or four drummers on the scene, barring that supremely generic moniker.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer via his heyday stint with Journey, circa 1978-1985? The trap set marvel besotted with North and South Indian classical music, toured and recorded with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. The incandescently swinging cat who leads the Buddy Rich tribute band Buddy’s Buddies? The dynamo who powered Mike Manieri’s storied fusion combo Steps Ahead? All the same dude.
If there’s one thread running through Smith’s bogglingly disparate musical pursuits, it’s his band Vital Information. On a tour that marks the combo’s 40th anniversary, the unusual power trio plays Yoshi’s on March 26 and Kuumbwa on March 27. Considering Smith’s restless curiosity, it’s not surprising that Vital Information has evolved considerably in recent years as longtime comrades retired or departed the mortal scene.
Over the first three decades, Vital Information featured a formidable cast of players, including guitarists Mike Stern and Frank Gambale and bassists Kai Eckhardt and Larry Grenadier. For most of that time, Santana organist Tom Coster defined the group’s sound. With the quartet focused on gritty grooves, Coster’s seminal experiences in the mid-1960s playing soul-infused Hammond B3 organ in Fillmore District jazz clubs proved invaluable.
With Coster’s decision not to tour anymore, Smith took the band in an acoustic direction with pianist Mark Soskin, a prolific veteran best known for his 12-year stint with tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins. Soskin was already holding down the piano chair in Buddy’s Buddies, and Vital Information thrived until, well, you know.
“I was touring pretty often in Europe, the U.S. and China until the pandemic,” Smith, 68, says. “From 2016-2019, I was touring with Journey six months of the year and with Vital Information and other gigs.”
That was his third stint with Journey, which ended abruptly as the band devolved into a legal morass that only seemed to get crazier by the week. The latest news from Billboard is that Journey’s two remaining longtime members, guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain, have hired bodyguards to keep each other out of their dressing rooms. Smith seemed less than interested in rehashing drama old and new.
“I really have nothing to say about that,” he deadpans. “I’m just happy to be playing my own music with my own group.”
In the wake of bassist Baron Browne’s 2021 death and Mark Soskin’s health struggles, Smith reconfigured the band with British-born electric bassist Janek Gwizdala and trumpeter Randy Brecker, “I knew [Janek] was the right player, with the chops to play swing, R&B funk, fusion,” Smith says. “I was looking for a completely new sound, and Janek is a great improviser from nothing. He’ll create sounds with the pedals, and we’ll find a groove or a melody.”
Nothing Smith does should come as a surprise, but it was still astonishing to see that he brought Cuban pianist Manuel Valera into the Vital Information fold. Over the last two decades, the brilliant improviser-composer has become a key figure in New York’s jazz scene. Meanwhile, his work on the West Coast, with fellow Cuban masters like trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist and percussionist Yosvany Terry and drummer Dafnis Prieto, has added to his acclaim.
Smith was quickly struck “by his musicianship, virtuosity and ability to improvise effortlessly.”
I brought in Vital Information charts, and [Valera] sight-read them. He’s a monster player—so enthusiastic and a great writer and arranger.”
Valera’s tunes are featured extensively on the new Steve Smith and Vital Information album, Times Flies, a setting that seems to unleash the keyboardist. It’s electro-acoustic, “but not a super fusion set up,” says Valera, who joins the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis next month for a special program with Cuban reed great Paquito D’Rivera.
“I have two keyboards, a Rhodes-type instrument and a synth that I do a lot of routing on, but for the most part, there’s a lot of acoustic pianos,” Valera explains. “It’s not like a traditional piano trio at all. It’s quite an honor to have some of my compositions on a Vital Information record. You never know what turn your next path will take.”
Time Flies also features a disc with new tunes and special guest George Garzone, a Boston saxophone savant that Smith played with during his years at Berklee College of Music in the 1970s. And as if Smith couldn’t resist adding another surprise into the mix, Time Flies features a bonus album with Gwizdala, Valera, Smith and Garzone on a session of impromptu improvisations.
“I go to play with an open mind,” Valera says. “Steve can really let loose. There’s no fear of catastrophe.”
Steve Smith & Vital Information perform Monday, March 27 at 7pm at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $47.25/$52.50; $26.25/students. kuumbwajazz.org