Steve Smith, Harvey Mason
January 1, 1970A little more jazz stuff will become routine in coming weeks, as the Globe has asked me to start doing a short writeup of a Jazz Pick each week for its Calendar section. It began this past Thursday with Harvey Mason, who will be in Boston on Tuesday with a straight-ahead trio.
This week's Jazz Notes main item was a profile of drummer Steve Smith, whose fusion band Vital Information plays at Ryles tonight. Smith's most high-profile gig was as drummer for the hugely popular rock band Journey during its early '80s heyday.
Tomorrow my picks for the year's 10 best jazz CDs will be running in the Globe. They'll be included, too, in next week's newsletter.
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Fusing jazz and rock proves Vital
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | December 10, 2004
Steve Smith's journey to fronting his fusion band Vital Information began in Whitman, with stints playing arena rock and straight-ahead big-band and small-group jazz along the way.
What prepped Smith for all that would follow, he says, was the big-band training he got growing up in Boston.
"With that kind of orientation," Smith says, "I had the technical background to really do just about anything I wanted to do musically. Because that, in some ways, is the most rigorous type of drumming that you can do: to be the drummer in a band with 15 other musicians. You really have to have a subtle kind of strength to keep that many people swinging together.
"If you do some research," he adds, "you'll find the great drummers — all the way from Buddy Rich to Gene Krupa to Steve Gadd, Billy Cobham even — they all got their training in big bands. That's about the best training you can get."
Now 50, Smith's training began at age 9 with lessons from big-band veteran Bill Flanagan. Four years later he caught Buddy Rich at the 1968 Boston Globe Jazz Festival. By the time he was studying at Berklee in the 1970s, he was touring New England with the Lin Biviano Big Band.
Jazz-rock fusion was coming into full flower at the time, too. In 1976, he left Berklee to begin touring and recording with fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
Smith's career hit an interesting fork in the road two years later when he left Ponty's band. In one week he auditioned for jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose, and was offered both gigs. He chose to go with Montrose.
"The way I looked at it," Smith recalls, "was that I had never played with a real rock 'n' roll guy like Ronnie Montrose. I'd played a lot of jazz, and just thought that that would always be there."
Three of the eight months Smith spent touring with Montrose involved opening for Journey, which led to yet another job offer.
"In those days Journey was playing half instrumental tunes and half pop tunes," Smith recalls. "So it was kind of a cross between a fusion gig and a pop gig. And then it became more and more pop, and we became more and more successful."
Eventually he moved on to other things, most prominently a several-year run with Mike Mainieri's electric jazz group Steps Ahead. A couple of years earlier, Smith and two pals from his high school days — saxophonist Dave Wilczewski and bassist Tim Landers — got together to record the album "Vital Information" with guitarists Mike Stern and Dean Brown.
Vital Info has remained Smith's main outlet as a leader ever since, even as he has kept busy doing studio work (with everyone from Mariah Carey to Bryan Adams to Ray Price) and leading the Buddy Rich tribute quintet Buddy's Buddies. The group's lineup includes Tom Coster on keyboards, Frank Gambale on guitar, and Baron Browne on electric bass.
Browne was recruited to help inject a more rootsy feel into Vital Info's fusion.
"We kind of came to the same point in our lives but we just took different paths," says Browne. "I learned funk and Motown first, and then I learned fusion. And then when I got to Berklee, right out of high school, I realized I had to learn straight-ahead bebop jazz, because that's so much a part of the curriculum there."
It's that grounding that makes Vital Information so much more interesting than much of what passes for fusion these days.
"We're not a happy-jazz group," observes Smith. "There are bands that are called fusion bands that I would consider more like smooth-jazz bands. And 'smooth jazz' is the worst description of a kind of music, because in a lot of those groups there's really no jazz going on at all."
In the better fusion bands, he explains, "the guys are well-versed in the bebop language, and so their playing has depth. Whereas the lighter-weight fusion bands are more just pop-oriented, just trying to make music that appeals to the average person in a feel-good sort of way. Whether you know it intellectually or not, you can feel the difference."
An unquiet night
Concord-based guitarist Steve Thomas and his bandmates Frank Basile (drums), Maggie Rizzi (bass), and Bob Ponte (keyboards) will play at the Arlington Center for the Arts tomorrow night, joined by special guest jazz violinist (and Wellesley College and Rivers Music School jazz faculty member) Paula Zeitlin.
Thomas's oddly titled new CD, "jaz-mobi Project," features nine of his own compositions, plus another co-written with Joey P. and Dale Ramsey. Thomas's stuff blends nouveau-bop, blues, and world music into a uniquely peppy, poppy fusion sound.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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Jazz Pick (Calendar)
Harvey Mason with very special guests
Scullers, DoubleTree Hotels Guest Suites, 400 Soldiers Road, Boston. 617-562-4111. 8 and 10 p.m. Ticket only $25, dinner and show $63.
Harvey Mason is a first-call session drummer best-known for his work with the quartet of contemporary-jazz virtuosi calling themselves Fourplay, and for his work on Herbie Hancock's classic 1973 "Head Hunters" album. (That's Mason's funky fusion rearrangement of Hancock's "Watermelon Man.") But the man can lead a straight-ahead piano trio any time he feels like it, as evidenced by this year's "With All My Heart," on which Mason is joined by an assortment of piano-bass dream teams that include Hancock, Chick Corea, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch — and that's just getting started on the pianists. An equally long list of impressive bassists starts off with Ron Carter and Charlie Haden. Lucky for us, Mason feels like doing the trio thing in Boston next Tuesday. Joining him for two sets at Scullers will be pianist Joey Calderazzo, whose own recent work on disc includes his solo-piano "Haiku" and the Branford Marsalis Quartet standouts "Eternal" and "Romare Bearden Revealed." No word yet on who will turn up as bassist, but Mason's track record suggests he (or she) will also be very special.