Steve Smith & Vital Information: Come On In
CD 2004
Tone Center
Disc 1
01. Time Tunnel
02. Come On In
03. Beneath the Surface
04. Cat Walk
05. Around the World
06. Soho
07. A Little Something
08. From Naples to Heaven
09. Baton Rouge
10. Fine Line
11. High Wire
release notes
Tom Coster, Hammond B-3 organ, Fender Rhodes, accordion
Frank Gambale, guitar
Baron Browne, acoustic & electric basses
Steve Smith, drums

Liner Notes:
Acknowledging his appearance on a string of five mega-selling albums with arena rock kings Journey, Columbia Records deigned to throw drummer Steve Smith a bone back in 1983. What Smith did with that golden opportunity was to record Vital Information, a hard-hitting instrumental project that harkened back to his incendiary late 70s work with fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and with guitarist Ronnie Montrose. He followed up that solo release with a tour, a second record, Orion, and... voila!... a band was born.

"The history of that first record is that I had known the bass player, Tim Landers, and the sax player, David Wilczewski, since high school," recalls Smith. "We played together in 71 and 72 in the Bridgewater State College big band in Massachusetts. The three of us were actually high school students from different schools that they brought in because they didnt have enough players in the college big band. We met then and continued to play through the years. Even during the time when I was playing with Jean-Luc Ponty, Ronnie Montrose or Journey, and Tim was playing with Al Di Meola and Dave was with Al Kooper, we still got together once a year and played gigs in Boston. Eventually, by 83, I was able to get a record deal on Columbia. Thats when I came up with the Vital Information name and we did our first record with Mike Stern and Dean Brown on guitars, both were old friends from the Berklee College of Music. So basically Vital Information was just a bunch of friends getting together and having a good time making a real record on a major label. And it just kept going from there, I wanted to keep the band going as an outlet for whatever I was interested in musically and creatively, and to play with the people that I really wanted to play with."

Now in its 21st year since that initial release, Vital Information has become a formidable fusion juggernaut whose longevity surpasses the Zawinul Syndicate, Tribal Tech and even Weather Report. With various personnel changes over the years, (bassist Kai Eckhardt played on 1988s Fiafiaga, acoustic bassist Larry Grenadier and saxophonist Larry Schneider played on 1990s Vitalive!, electric bassist Jeff Andrews joined in 92 on Easier Done Than Said), Vital Information continued to evolve while refining its distinctive sound. As Smith points out, "It was a little more rock and fusion oriented at the beginning and then it went through a phase where we were doing things on the computer, which reflected a lot of what was going on at the time in the late 80s. Keyboardist Tom Coster joined the group on Global Beat in 86 and guitarist Frank Gambale started with us in 88 on Fiafiaga. In the early 90s we stopped using the sax and later we reinvented ourselves with a more organic approach of featuring Tom on the Hammond B-3 and Frank on the jazz-box guitar and by going after the looser/funkier U.S. Beat vibe."

That new direction came in with 1998s Where We Come From, a rootsy amalgam which ran the stylistic gamut from James Brown funk to Booker T & The MGs Memphis soul to searing Tony Williams Lifetime-inspired fusion while making further allusions to jazz icons like Buddy Rich, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Ornette Coleman along the way. That Americanized formula became more clarified on 2000s Live Around The World, which introduced electric bassist and longtime Jean-Luc Ponty sideman Baron Browne to the Vital lineup. Their group chemistry solidified on 2001s Show Em Where You Live.

On the bands 11th album, Come On In, Vital Information continues to hone its "American music" direction while staking out some adventurous new territory. With this third Vital Information recording to showcase the ongoing lineup of Smith, Coster, Gambale and Browne, the listener is invited to a veritable banquet of sounds to satisfy a wide variety of tastes. From slamming funk and syncopated second line grooves to seriously swinging, uptempo B-3 burners, South Indian Carnatic inspired jams and sizzling fuzoid romps, these seasoned veterans cover a lot of bases on Come On In and do it all in such convincing fashion.

Vital founder Smith is quick to point out that a key to the bands remarkable versatility is its bassist. "Baron brought a real serious groove element to the band," says Smith of his rhythm section partner. "Hes my favorite bass player to play with because he can play all the styles and he always makes the music feel so good. Baron plays great swing, great funk and groove, he can read anything and play in all the odd time signatures and he can play over changes really well. Its hard to find bass players who can do all of that, so he really matches up with me well."

Opening on a decidedly jazz note with "Tunnel Vision," paced by Smiths briskly swinging stickwork and Gambales brilliant guitar playing, the highly flexible unit moves easily and authoritatively to Tom Costers kinetic title cut. With Steves steady hi hat pulse and the tricky unison figures between Gambales guitar and Brownes electric bass, this bass feature is reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius chops-busting anthem "Teen Town." On the freewheeling acoustic trio improvisation "Beneath The Surface," Smith eschews the traps set here for the African clay pot Udu drum, setting up a groove underneath Costers accordion and Gambales steel string acoustic guitar. That organic jam serves as an intro to the pumped-up, electrified funk-fusion offering "Cat Walk," which features ripping solos by Coster on B-3 and Gambale on clean-toned guitar wailing over a 7/8 groove.

"Around The World" bears the stamp of New Orleans premier ambassadors of funk, The Meters. Note how Brownes slippery yet deeply-rooted basslines here form a moving, grooving pocket with Smiths convincing second line beat in 9/4 capturing that inimitable push-and-pull feel that marked so many of The Meters 60s and 70s hits, courtesy of the great rhythm tandem of bassist George Porter and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste. On top of that earthy pocket, Coster layers on Man-Child-era Herbie Hancock-isms on synth while Gambale unleashes more of his fiery fretboard work, culminating in some exhilarating arpeggiated exchanges with Coster, at the tag of this infectious groover.

Gambales "Soho" is a suitable showcase for his peerless chops. A swinging midtempo vehicle, it reveals the Aussie guitar heros undying love of Wes Montgomery while also highlighting his patented (and mind-boggling) sweep picking technique. Gambale also reveals his fondness for blowing effortlessly over blues form at breakneck tempos on his smoking jazz number "A Little Something." Smiths agile brushwork in tandem with Brownes insistent walking basslines provides a swinging foundation for this surging hard bop number. The sparks really fly during Costers burning, Jimmy Smith-inspired B-3 solo while Gambale ups the ante with another awesome solo that culminates in a daring guitar-drums breakdown between Gambale and Smith. The two have been developing their obvious musical rapport in Vital Information since 1988 and have further forged an explosive chemistry together through a series of power trio recordings with bassist Stu Hamm (1998s Show Me What You Can Do, 2000s The Light Beyond and 2002s GHS3).

Gambales bittersweet waltz-time number, "From Naples To Heaven," carries a distinctly Mediterranean feel with Costers accordion work. That affecting piece is a dedication to Franks late father Lorenzo, who hailed from Naples, Italy. The tightly executed, metrically-challenging unison lines that pop up throughout "Baton Rouge" show the influence of South Indian motifs on Smiths U.S. drumming sensibility. As he explains, "The tune is in 5/4 the drums and bass play 2+3 while the guitar plays 3+2 -- and uses some South Indian Carnatic rhythmic devises that Ive learned by playing with some fantastic Indian musicians. The ghatam master T.H. "Vikku" Vinayakram (a founding member of Shakti) taught me the rhythm that we used as an ending. We jammed on the feels and Baron, Frank and Tom came up with their parts, its a true band offering."

"Fine Line," the other acoustic trio improvisation, again has Smith switching from drumset to Udu drum alongside Costers accordion and Gambales steel string acoustic guitar. And the band closes out the collection in powerhouse fashion with "High Wire," a full-out fusion effort that recalls Return To Forevers 1974 fusion anthem "Beyond The Seventh Galaxy" from Where Have I Known You Before. This volatile piece is marked by Smiths aggressive backbeats, precise stop-time unison lines and a take-no-prisoners approach to soloing by Gambale, whose ferocious sweeping demonstration here will simultaneously frighten and delight aspiring ax-slingers.

There isnt a more flexible and disciplined band of killer players on the jazz scene today than Vital Information. And they prove it once again on Come On In.

-- Bill Milkowski

Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Jazz Times, Jazziz, Bass Player and Modern Drummer magazines. He is also the author of "JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius" (Backbeat Books)
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