ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 27, 1987
By Steve Newton
It’s a long way, in musical terms, from the commercial rock of Journey to the improvisational jazz of Vital Information. But for drummer Steve Smith, who appears at the Town Pump Friday (March 27) with Vital Information, it was a route that had to be taken.
Smith left Journey–and a lucrative career in rock–two years ago. Today he is fronting a fusion band that includes keyboardist Tom Coster (Santana), saxman Dave Wilczewski (Jean-Luc Ponty, Allan Holdsworth), guitarist Frank Gambale (Chick Corea), and bassist Tim Landers (Billy Cobham, Al Di Meola).
Smith became a member of Journey in 1979, taking over the drum duties from famed percussionist Aynsley Dunbar. He was with the band when they hit it big with singles such as “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'” and “Who’s Crying Now”, and albums like 1981’s Escape. But after six years in the corporate rock arena, things started to sour, as Smith recalls.
“It just got to the point where, as people, we weren’t getting along, and as musicians our tastes had grown and separated. It came down to the ultimatum of Steve Perry, the lead singer, either leaving the band or taking it over. And at that point in time we decided that we couldn’t go on and do it without him, so we gave him that full control over the band.”
Perry then wielded that power and asked Smith and bassist Ross Valory to leave the group. “He basically turned it into his solo project,” says Smith, who is no longer buddies with the current Journey members.
Before getting the heave-ho out of Journey, Smith had already made two solo records under the Vital Information name, and the jazz-bred drummer decided to make a real commitment to that form of music. He spent all of 1986 playing with Steps Ahead, a band that featured guitarist Mike Stern, from the Miles Davis group, and ace saxophonist Michael Brecker. When it came time to take his own group on the road, Smith acquired the virtuoso talents of keyboardist Tom Coster, who plays on the latest Santana album. Coster turned down the offer to tour with Carlos and company in favour of Smith’s group.
“Obviously he would have been, financially, very successful with Santana,” says Smith. “But he took the chance to go with something new and unproven, just to be able to play the music.”
As well as playing on the new Santana LP, Tom Coster contributed much to Santana’s music in the ’70s. He wrote or co-wrote seven tracks on the superb Moonflower album of 1977, including “Europa”, “Dance Sister Dance”, and the title track. His keyboard skills should be one of many highlights at the Town Pump show, another being the guitar-playing ability of Frank Gambale. A native Australian, Gambale came to the U.S. to study at the prestigious Guitar Institute of Technology, and he did so well that he became a teacher there. Smith is mighty impressed with Gambale’s performances on the Vital Information tour so far.
“He’s tearin’ it up,” Steve says. “The guy’s the next fusion-guitar superstar.”
As well as playing with some of the stars of jazz, Smith has worked with such rock heroes as Ronnie Montrose and Bryan Adams. He turned down dates with jazz great Freddie Hubbard to play with Montrose on the latter’s Open Fire tour, and he played drums on Adams’ “Heaven”, a track from the hit Reckless LP. Smith knows as well as anybody the financial disparities between the rock and roll world and the jazz life, but he has his priorities straight.
“First of all, my motivation in life has never been solely to make money. When I first started out I studied jazz from the time I was nine till I was 21, and my motivation for playing with people has always been to experience music and grow as a musician. So when I was offered a gig with Journey, I figured, ‘Let’s check it out, and see what it’s like to be in a rock and roll band.’
“After I left Journey I had some good offers to play with other rock bands, but the money didn’t have anything to do with it. I decided to play instrumental jazz music that has a lot of improvisation in it and that really demands a lot from me as a musician.”
Though Smith admits that trying to get Vital Information established–even to get record stores to stock their albums–has been difficult, he says that they’ve been claiming new fans wherever they play.
“Maybe they don’t expect people that have played in rock bands to be real good jazz musicians.”