Last year was another banner benchmark for 63-year-old Steve Smith, whose dynamic, versatile drumming as bandleader, band member and sideman is arguably the fifth fundamental force of nature.
January 2017 included the release of “The Fabric of Rhythm: The Artwork of Steve Smith,” a hardbound book and LP focusing on the symmetry of motion and what it looks like when captured on canvas. In April, Smith’s 1978-1985 collaboration with Journey was honored as the arena rockers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Smith also toured again with the band for a second consecutive year. And in May, Smith won an unprecedented three categories in Modern Drummer’s annual Readers Poll: MVP, Rock, and Educational Product (Hudson Music Book/DVD “Pathways of Motion”).
In September, Steve Smith and Vital Information NYC Edition, now a more jazz-based than fusion-oriented version of the group Smith founded in 1983, released Heart of the City.
The album provides the core of what Smith, keyboardist Mark Soskin, guitarist Vinnie Valentino, and bassist Baron Browne will be performing at the Grass Valley Center of the Arts on Jan. 29. The concert will include tunes from Smith’s tenure in Jazz Legacy, a band that played songs made famous by such drummers as Tony Williams and Elvin Jones.
Heart of the City is a mix of originals; re-envisioned jazz standards; an instrumental oddity (Bing Crosby’s “I’m an Old Cowhand”); two song-length drum solos; and two numbers infused with Konnakol, a South Indian rhythmic vocal recitation (a proficiency Smith displayed in the Raga Bop Trio show here at the now-defunct JB’s Lounge in 2010).
“Now it feels quite natural to have (Konnakol) rhythms integrated into my playing,” said Smith recently, “even when I’m playing straight ahead jazz. Even if I don’t recite Konnakol, I’m still thinking of some of those rhythms because they work so well within jazz and even rock. I used some of those rhythms while playing with Journey. Especially in my solos.”
“Heart of the City” and such Journey albums as “Escape” and “Frontiers” are aesthetically worlds apart but dance to the same drummer and embrace the same collective improvisation approach.
“In the early days of Vital Information I wrote about one-third of the music,” said Smith, who has played Sonor drums for 41 years, “but eventually, it just became too frustrating because my keyboard technique is so limited, so I used a writing concept that we developed with Journey, which is essentially everyone comes in with an idea in a rehearsal studio and we jam until we have a finished song.”
“I’ve done that a number of times with Neal Schon on his solo records. He’ll have a bit of an idea but then I’ll take it and play for five minutes with a compositional concept thinking, ‘OK, here’s a unique groove, there’s a chorus groove, now I’m going to play some bridge kind of idea.’ And then we go back and put a bass part to it and a guitar part. Then we can fine tune and change it. So that’s how I write. I’m fortunate that I have people that can do that.”
Smith grew up near Boston and spent summers at the family cottage on Cape Cod. His interest in percussion began when he heard a snare drum during a fourth-grade music demonstration. His first favorite groups were the big bands of Count Basie and Buddy Rich. Then on Cape Cod in 1967, friends introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Cream.
“When I heard early rock music, English Invasion,” said Smith, “it didn’t mean anything to me. The music sounded too simple. When I heard Jimi Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell or John Bonham with Led Zeppelin or Ginger Baker playing with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, that was different. That was closer to jazz. I could relate to that drumming. I could relate to that music. So that was when I discovered rock.”
By the time Smith graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1972, fusion was in full swing, radically changing the way people considered playing the drums.
“That was all part of my learning in real time,” said Smith. “I was seeing those musicians play and being transformed in the jazz clubs in Boston, hearing Tony Williams play with Alan Holdsworth. By the time I was hired by Jean-Luc Ponty (in 1976) to go on tour and record, that’s how I was playing jazz, and that’s how my peers were playing jazz.”
Smith now splits his time between residences in Ashland, Ore., and New York City, allowing him access to jazz gigs in NYC venues like Birdland.
“Its tough to make a living as a jazz artist but its harder still if you are a drummer because people don’t walk out humming drum solos generally,” Smith said. “I won’t say it’s a negative connotation but it’s a bigger challenge for us, and that’s why I am still playing as a sideman for a lot of people.”