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Steve Smith

Andy Fusco

Vinny Valentino

Baron Browne

Photos by Andrzej Pilarczyk

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The Van Dyck
Schenectady, NY
February 21, 2010

by J Hunter

Deep in the fog that surrounds my college days, I remember seeing a hand-made band poster outside a bar in Cambridge: The poster was for a band called Vital Information, featuring Steve Smith and Mike Stern. And I remember thinking, “Why is Miles Davis’ guitarist playing with the drummer for Journey?” That was before I knew Smith was an accomplished fusion drummer who’d been classmates with Randy Brecker at Berklee, and long before I watched Vital Information (then featuring Smith, Tom Coster, Frank Gambale and Jeff Andrews) use devastating fusion technology to lay waste to the 1992 San Jose Jazz Festival.

With all that in mind, the two-set visit by Smith’s latest group was both a blast from the past and a great shot of the present. Vital Legacy is a mash-up of Vital Information and Smith’s straight-ahead outfit Jazz Legacy, with material and personnel from both bands. Fusion and trad jazz in the same mix usually ends up turning into a big mushroom cloud, but that wasn’t going to happen here – partly because of the talented players Smith led onto the Van Dyck’s stage, but mostly because Smith knows how to go to the edge of each genre and get the most out of both of them.

Smith literally kicked the first set into gear with Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” Monk’s as trad as you can get, but the music was delivered through Vital Information’s massive electric attack. Like I said, playing straight-ahead jazz in a “modern” way can crash and burn, but the quality of the performances equaled the fervor of the arrangement. Andy Fusco used to play with Buddy Rich over 30 years ago, which makes him unlikely to thrive in this kind of setting, but his alto sax burned so bright, as did Vinny Valentino’s hollow-body guitar. It was a terrific reboot of classic material, and the accompanying take on McCoy Tyner’s “Inception” was just as hot.

It’s a fair bet that a percentage of the sold-out crowd only knew Smith’s work with Journey, so this night had to be an education. Smith’s solo spot on Tony Williams’ “Sister Cheryl” was absolutely epic, and closer to classical tympani than jazz drumming. Then bassist Baron Browne set up a thumping background for Smith and Valentino to scat-sing the dizzying South Indian rhythm that is the basis for “Interwoven Rhythms”, the opening track from Vital Information’s latest disc Vitalization. Aside from being a marvelous performance piece, it also showed the educator side of Smith, and the deep thought that he puts into his music.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a sucker for Fender Rhodes, so seating me behind Mark Soskin was like locking my cat Tiger Okoshi inside a catnip factory. Soskin’s solo and fills on “Bemsha” really brought the piece to a new level, and he took us all to church with his gospel-laced intro to Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’.” Fusco totally captured the room with his passionate workup of “Embraceable You”, and then knocked us all out with his blistering runs on “A Night in Tunisia.” Fusco, Soskin and Valentino all grabbed percussion instruments on the latter tune, helping Browne push Smith’s opening and closing solos even higher.

In the middle of the set, Smith told us how every time he’d toured over the last few years, he’d say, “What’s happening at the Van Dyck?” Here’s what’s happening: Both of Vital Legacy’s shows were sold out on a Sunday night, with lots of fresh faces that aren’t part of the usual scene. As a result, Steve Smith turns on more new souls to this invigorating music, and the Van Dyck takes another step in its happy resurgence. I’d say that’s a win-win.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.