For a fan who’s listened to legendary drummer Steve Smith playing in bands ranging from Journey to Steps Ahead, it was easy on Friday night to figure out why his own long-time quartet is called Vital Information. The two score year’d band, consisting of Mark Soskin/key, Vinny Valentino, Baron Browne/b and Smith, is one of the few that can credibly mix material from the jazz tradition, mix it with a healthy dose of future directions and still be able to supply it with its most basic ingredient, namely swing. During it’s torrid 90 minute set (the first of a 3 day run), Smith and VI brought the audience from terra firma to lands where few have dared to gone before, safely returning to earth in the process.
The band opened things up with pieces that would normally be familiar to modern jazz fans, such as McCoy Tyner’s “Inception” and Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm A Ning,” but in the hands of these gents, new blood is transfused as Valentino ‘s guitar slithered through Smith’s merciless ride cymbal before he and Soskin went mano a mano towards a rousing climax on the fomer, and Browne’s bass teamed up with Smith to dig a deep rivulet in the later.
Tipping a high hat to his idol, Smith opened up a shifting sands mood to the Buddy Rich associated “Willowcrest” before popping the clutch and cruising in overdrive to create webbing and flowing sonic waves that Valentino long boarded and Soskins contributed soulful struts.
From the latest album the Soskins and Valentino pulled out some wide wale chords as Smith and Browne got down and funky on the aptly titled “ Bugalulu” before Smith sashayed on the brushes as deftly as Fred Astaire on a buoyant “I Love You” which went from a nimble duet with the guitarist to a full butane Bunsen burner. Even the warhorse “Cherokee” got a new coat of paint as Valentine added some simmering, slow and sensuous wacka wooka guitar. Through it all, Smith performed like a master sculpture; like Geppetto, creating living PInocchios out of each piece of material given him.
Most fascinating of all was the adventurous medley “Open Dialogue” and “Charukeshi Express” that had Smith not only mixing in South Asian rhythms, but with Valentino vocalizing articulated Indian rhythms in unison. This Konnakol style of voice percussion mixed with exotic choirs, harmonies and visceral keyboard vamps, had the band take the audience to mysterious and far away lands, and possibly beyond!
Returning to earth, Smith road the ride cymbal like Walter Brennan on a wagon train as the mustangs galloped through the closing bop classic “Mr. PC.” Browne’s fingers did some open field running on his solo spotlight before Smith drummer delivered a closing solo that mixed versatility, virtuosity and volcanic energy and dymamics, showing why he’s not only justified in being voted the best living overall drummer, but the man most qualified to lead jazz into future lands.
Upcoming shows at Catalina’s include Buddy Rich Big Band 01/29, Simon Philips 02/05-06 and James Morrison 02/12