Two is better than one for a drummer-led trio.
Steve Smith and Vital Information – Time Flies – [TrackList follows] – Wounded Bird Records WOU 9998, CD1 60:00, CD 2 54:00 [5/5/23] ****:
(CD 1: Steve Smith – drums, producer; Manuel Valera – acoustic piano and electric keyboards; Janek Gwizdala – electric bass; George Garzone – tenor sax (tracks 3, 7, 11); Mike Mainieri – vibes (track 9))
(CD 2: Smith; Garzone; Valera; Gwizdala)
There is a varied context to drummer Steve Smith’s latest foray with his band Vital Information. The two-CD, two-hour outing finds Smith showcasing two sides of his jazz foundation. First there are the twelve straightforward compositions on Time Flies and then there is the extended, improvisational music on the bonus disc A Prayer for the Generations.
Although Smith is a well-respected jazz drummer, he is probably best known for his tenure in classic rockers Journey from 1978 to 1985, 1995 to 1998 and 2015 to 2020. He is also a member of jazz fusion ensemble Steps Ahead (1996-present). Time Flies marks Vital Information’s 40th Anniversary recording and is the group’s 17th release. Vital Information’s current roster consists of Smith; Cuban acoustic and electric keyboardist Manuel Valera, who has worked in bands led by Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Lenny White; and England-born Janek Gwizdala on bass, who has performed with Peter Erskine, Kazumi Watanabe, and others.
The trio comfortably and masterfully balances originals penned by the trio alongside material by Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter and one cut by another Steps Ahead alum. There is a zippy bounce to “Tempus Fugue-it,” one of two Powell pieces adapted by Smith and Vital Information. During “Tempus Fugue-it” Gwizdala’s electric bass has some genuine punch; Valera’s acoustic piano displays his chops; and Smith drives the rhythm at a fast pace. The equally galloping “Un Poco Loco”—first issued in 1951 by Powell, bassist Curly Russell, and drummer Max Roach—is another memorable realization, where Smith goes all-out on his full kit.
There are two guests. Steps Ahead vibraphonist Mike Mainieri sits in during Valera’s “No Qualm,” a pleasant, midtempo number nicely buoyed by Mainieri’s vibes. Ironically, Mainieri does not contribute to his own “Self Portrait,” which Smith has performed numerous times on stage with Steps Ahead. This newer trio interpretation has an enticing Valera acoustic piano intro which adds aplomb to this finely chiseled ballad. Tenor saxophonist George Garzone (his long list of credits include Kenny Barron, Dave Holland, Dave Liebman, Gary Peacock, and many more) is on three cuts. He is stunning on Tyner’s “Inception,” the title track from Tyner’s 1962 debut. It is interesting to hear how Vital Information translates Tyner’s trio arrangement into a burning quartet presentation. Garzone is also on this release’s groove-glinted title track, a midtempo modern-sounding, ad-hoc exhibition. An innovative reading of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” begins with a Garzone and Smith duet, then changes to a 7/4 vamp, and then the foursome puts Porter’s melody into a heady spin and the tune ends with Smith’s dynamic drum solo.
Garzone is more to the fore on the bonus disc, a 54-minute excursion which was created via chance and opportunity. When Garzone’s early December 2022 session wrapped up, the group opted to let the tapes continue rolling and go into exploratory areas. Garzone suggested doing “One Down, One Up,” an obscure John Coltrane cut from a 1965 recording not issued on an official Coltrane album. Vital Information and Garzone did one vigorous, nearly seven-minute take and elected to mutually enter a sphere of “collective group composition.” Garzone proposed: “Let’s play as if we are offering a prayer.” The result is the eight-part A Prayer for the Generations. Each Coltrane-inspired portion is fully spontaneous in the same order as listed on the bonus disc. The intuitive improvisation melds acoustic and electric elements into a long-form vehicle for invention and allows the musical muse to go unhindered. The parts—ranging from four minutes to over seven minutes—span from midtempo groove jams and free-flowing, rhythmically extemporaneous ballads, to blues and up-tempo segments filled with fervor.
Steve Smith and Vital Information – Time Flies
Darn that Dream
Un Poco Loco
Choreography in Six
What Is This Thing Called Love?
One Down, One Up
A Prayer for the Generations, Parts 1-8
More Information through Wounded Bird Records