Recorded December 5-15, 2006 and Mixed January 28-February 2, 2007 by Robert M. Biles at Bob’s Hardware in Silverlake, CA
Mastered by Jim Brick at Absolute Audio, Atlantic Highlands, NJ February 2007
The drummer in every band has the capacity to become the “de facto” leader and arranger, just by his strong voice, and the complimentary nature of the instrument. In performance, drummer Steve Smith fits into this mold perfectly. However, as a bandleader and a musician he brings much more to the table.
Smith’s background of musical experience ranges far and wide. Most recently he’s been touring with a new incarnation of Mike Mainieri’s Steps Ahead, playing Indian/fusion with George Brooks’ Summit (featuring Zakir Hussain on tabla), and leading his new straight-ahead quintet Jazz Legacy (with Andy Fusco, Walt Weiskopf, Mark Soskin and Baron Browne.) Yet, it’s his group Vital Information that is the culmination of all these influences, the canvas for his ever-expanding musical palette.
These endeavors have had a direct impact on the music Vital Information creates, which is always a unique blend of traditions combined with fresh ingredients. Their new recording Vitalization continues this expansive approach.
Vitalization, the twelfth recording by Steve Smith and Vital
Information, features longtime band members Steve Smith on drums, Tom Coster on keyboards, bassist Baron Browne and introduces Vinny Valentino as the band’s new guitarist.
Smith’s recent musical activities have inspired him to
include special guests and an international flavor. Saxophonist Bill Evans, percussionists Pete Lockett (from London), Gilad (from Israel) and Juan Carlos Melián (from Spain), all make important contributions to Vitalization.
Smith explained these contributions for the new record from his New York City home, "Bill Evans is one of my favorite sax players. We tour together in both Steps Ahead and Soulbop. In 2003, Bill toured with Vital Information as a special guest and appears with us on the Hudson Music DVD, Modern Drummer Festival 2003. I was hearing sax on four of the tunes, so it was natural to ask Bill to play."
Over the past five years, Steve Smith has been studying and playing Indian rhythms, practicing konnakol (South Indian vocal percussion) and has started playing the ghatam, the South Indian clay-pot drum. As a result, Smith has a new interest in hand percussion, which has led to the international flavor on Vitalization.
Smith speaks highly of the percussion contributors to the recording. "Gilad is now living in New York City, which is where I first saw him playing in Vinny Valentino's band. I was taken by his interesting ideas and virtuosity. Juan Carlos Melián and I met at a drum camp in Marktoberdorf, Germany where we were both teachers. He sat in with Vital Information on a European tour in 2004 and we all enjoyed his vibe and musical approach to percussion."
Both percussionists excel on the congas, cajón and all of the various ethnic shakers and "toys." Konnakol is heard on "Interwoven Rhythms - Synchronous" and "Dialogue.” These tunes feature the remarkable world percussionist
Of his percussive partner Smith says, "Pete has world-class knowledge and abilities on the tabla (from the North Indian Hindustani tradition) and kanjira and konnakol (from South Indian Carnatic music). We've played a few duo and trio concerts over the years, which gave me the idea to have him play on Vitalization. I incorporated some Indian rhythmic ideas on our last recording, Come On In, but I wanted to take that approach even further, so I invited Pete to enhance the new music.”
With true musical maturity, Smith leaves plenty of space for all of the guest percussionists to season the music. Over the past few years the rest of Vital Information’s palette has been expanding as well.
While Tom Coster is still turning up the heat in classic Hammond B3 style on his new Korg BX3, he is now conjuring otherworldly synth sounds and navigating the band’s new odd time signatures with more ease, allowing him to interject his soulful personality upon every note that he plays. Bassist Baron Browne is further defining his role within the music as a creative soloist, while never forsaking his role as keeper of the groove.
Which brings us to Vital Information’s newest member, Vinny Valentino. Smith remarks, “Vinny grew up playing in Hammond B3 trios and has that deep swing ingrained into his playing. He's extremely funky, has a warm sound and is a strong composer. When our long-time guitarist Frank Gambale left the band to develop his solo career, Vinny was our first choice to step into the group.”
Valentino grew up in Washington DC and is a graduate of Howard University. He has played with everyone from Jimmy McGriff and George Benson (his guitar mentor), to Bill Evans, John Pattitucci and Dennis Chambers. It is Benson who calls Vinny a "young genius with brilliant tone and fresh ideas." Valentino has seven recordings as a leader.
After Vinny joined the band in July 2006, the band embarked on some "collective writing" and Valentino's Adirondack lakeside mountain retreat was the perfect setting for creativity. This process was nothing new to the band but the locale and the environment were entirely different.
After 10 days of extensive jamming, composing and arranging, Vital Information emerged from the mountains of upstate New York with more than an albums worth of new music. "But then we did something different," Smith reveals, "We took the new music on the road performing it live before making the record. This is something we’ve always wanted to do."
All of the new music has touches of inspiration from Smith’s latest experiences, the expected fire and groove from Browne and Coster, and a refined sense of swing that Valentino brings to the mix.
"Interwoven Rhythms - Synchronous" finds Lockett and Smith’s konnakol vocals synchronized over a modern “trancelike” groove featuring Baron’s dancing bass line and Coster’s floating electric keyboard. Vinny finds the perfect spaces to interject some classic rhythm guitar that ties everything together. At the conclusion of every phrase, we hear unison konnakol and drum set that is simply staggering.
"Get Serious" is an exemplary Tom Coster composition -- tight unison lines, gorgeous chords, soaring melodies and dynamic basslines. The percussion section of Juan Carlos and Gilad support the melodies as well as the adventurous improvisations of both Valentino and Coster.
The intro finds Smith playing the syncopated melody on the toms along with Browne, Coster and Gilad. The tension builds even further when Smith introduces a jagged yet appropriate groove. All of this musical tension is released when Valentino’s guitar melody enters like a breath of fresh air.
Vinny’s solo remains bright, suspended above Coster’s probing chords. For his own solo Coster focuses on the more sinister demeanor of his harmony and he waits until the very end to brighten things up. The tune comes full circle when the band, along with Juan Carlos and Gilad, takes it out, playing the angular melody in unyielding unison.
Of "The Trouble With" Smith says, "Vinny has been playing this with his own band for a while. When I heard it, I thought it was a perfect ‘Vital Info’ tune with its compelling groove and soulful melody. It’s an ideal vehicle for some high powered soloing.”
The song kicks-off with some serious rhythm work by the composer; rarely has a rhythm guitar part been used so effectively as an intro. A traditional Motown drum fill escorts Bill Evans’ muscular tenor saxophone into the melody. Both Valentino and Evans’ solos are instigated by duets with the drummer. With Valentino, Smith’s snare and bass drum answer (and occasionally end) the guitarist’s slippery phrases.
Coster forgoes the duet, and cuts right to the point with a super-funky organ solo that stabs and darts, building up to a soulful and gradual explosion from Evans. Smith and Evans begin with a duet that leaves you wanting more and Bill proceeds to weave his way through the solo form as though he’s played it a thousand times. The band then lays down a nice vamp for Steve to solo over, climaxing with some furious single strokes before the final chord.
The title for Vinny's up-tempo blues "The Bottom Line" has a dual meaning. It is a remembrance of the famous and departed New York City club that the band always loved playing, while the tune itself is framed perfectly by the bottom line bass orchestrations of Baron Browne. This is some of Smith’s most swinging drumming to date and it inspires the rest of the band to do just the same.
Pay close attention to Valentino’s Grant Green inspired half time entrance to his guitar solo. Smith and his new associate show a wonderful telepathy throughout Vinny’s well structured and swinging offering.
Evans’ solo (this time on soprano) uses Browne’s creatively shifting and smooth “bottom line” to help him reach new heights. The band plays some well-orchestrated accompaniment to Smith’s solo, before wrapping it up.
The tune "Seven and a Half," is based on a tribal sounding drum rhythm that Smith came up with in 15/8, which South Indian musicians call 7 1/2. This drum theme, which Lockett doubles in perfect unison on the kanjira, reappears each time with an altered ending repeated three times before resolving to beat one, what the Indian musicians call a “tihai.”
Unfortunately, tunes written in odd times sometime contain mechanical grooves that never seem to rise above merely stating the “uneven” time signature. However, with Vital Information, this is clearly not the case -- this tune grooves hard.
In fact, Smith and the band make the Indian concept of playing in 7 1/2 downright funky. They collectively accomplish this by playing through the “ones” and concentrating on their entire soloing statements instead of the exotic time signature. Note the scorching “rock-guitar” solo after Smith’s outrageous solo; it’s actually a synth solo by Coster!
On the atmospheric “Interwoven Rhythms - Dialogue” we hear Smith’s doubled konnakol vocal on the left and right sides, while Lockett’s improvisations are heard in the middle. They exchange phrases for the entire composition only joining together in unison near the end of the piece. This all happens over a ethereal and pulsing groove that is propelled by Baron’s fretless bass and Smith’ s new Tala Wands on a sizzling Zildjian Flat Ride.
While Vinny Valentino’s "J Ben Jazz," (dedicated to Vinny’s bass playing buddy John Benitez) opens and closes with some inspired conga soloing from Gilad, the tune belongs to bassist Baron Browne. He not only contributes an elegant fretless bass solo, but his harmonic and rhythmic underpinnings really make this tune come alive. After two choruses of bass bliss, the band drops out for Valentino’s serene, yet metrically intricate, chordal solo, which becomes a vamp for Smith’s most powerful solo on the record, which happens to be in 13.
"You Know What I Mean" is quintessential Vital Information. This composition, written by the entire band, is based on some of Smith’s funkiest drumbeats to date. For this tune, Steve combines many different approaches and concepts of funk.
At the beginning we hear the snaky and slippery style of 70s San Francisco funk, he eventually morphs this with some second line feel and later swings hard with a backbeat -- some NYC “swunk” -- and Baron Browne is with him every step of the way, the two musicians working as one. In his guitar solo Valentino maneuvers the shifting ground by taking chances and landing on his feet.
After Bill Evans’ haunting soprano saxophone enters, Smith introduces a feel reminiscent of Al Foster’s drumming with Miles Davis. This unique approach implies half time and double time simultaneously, giving the soloist lots of room.
Gilad’s melodic congas and Vinny’s wickedly funky guitar serve to further enhance this extraordinarily grooving interlude. Finally, all of the melodic lines reappear, twisting around one another before Evans and Coster trade some angular phrases and take us home.
Upon close listening, you’ll notice that the aptly titled "Groove
Time" and "Jimmy Jive" are the same tune, written by Tom Coster, with two contrasting treatments. For "Groove Time" the band incorporates some Washington, DC "Go-Go" rhythms into the arrangement and for "Jimmy Jive" the band embraces a greasy Jimmy Smith approach. Tom dedicates the latter version to the late B3 master.
“The Closer” is a fusion tour de force. The band usually writes a larger than life set closer for every recording and there is no doubt that this one provides the fireworks that Vital Information is known for.
This moniker is defined by Vinny and Tom’s searing exchanges, Baron’s virtuosic solo and Steve and Vinny’s blazing duet. “The Closer” is in fact a three-part suite that starts in a swinging jazz-rock mode, moves into a fusion middle section, recapitulates part one with even more energy and culminates – in classic Vital Info style – with a blistering drum solo over a vamp.
“Positano” is a lovely coda to a masterful recording. One can feel the romance when listening to Vinny Valentino's beautiful serenade of a ballad, featuring Coster on his accordion.
After 20 plus years, Vital Information’s expanding musical territory is larger than ever. Vitalization is an exciting new chapter in this hard working band's ongoing history.