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Vital Information goes from arena rock to jazz - The Mercury News

It’s the rare jazz combo indeed that’s built around a musician who used to sell millions of rock albums.


But Steve Smith and Vital Information, a blazing jazz fusion quartet marking its 30th year, features two players who know what it’s like to coax a stadium full of fans to their feet, lighters held in flaming salute.


While Smith is renowned in jazz circles for his work with Mike Mainieri’s pioneering fusion band Steps Ahead, among rock fans he’s indelibly linked to Journey, the San Francisco juggernaut he joined as the band’s popularity crested with 1979’s “Evolution” and 1981’s “Escape.”


Vital Information, which performs Monday at Kuumbwa and Tuesday at Yoshi’s-San Francisco, also features bassist Baron Browne, guitarist Vinny Valentino and keyboardist Tom Coster, who spent much of the 1970s with Santana and composed (or co-composed) many of the band’s signature tunes.


Smith launched Vital Information while he was still part of Journey, with the intention of getting back to his jazz roots. While many of the era’s fusion stars were looking to break through to wider audiences “we just wanted to make some music that was potent,” says Smith, 57, from his studio in Novato. “I was already in this successful band. I didn’t want to go in the pop rock vein.”


Over the past three decades, Vital Information has featured a formidable cast of players, including guitarists Mike Stern and Frank Gambale and bassists Kai Eckhardt and Larry Grenadier. Since joining in 1986, Coster, 70, has anchored the quartet as its senior member. The band’s sound has changed with the personnel, but the evolution has mostly been driven by Smith’s creative sojourn into the roots of rock, jazz and R&B rhythms.


With the quartet increasingly focused on gritty grooves, Coster’s seminal experiences in the mid-1960s playing the Hammond B3 organ in Fillmore District jazz clubs proved invaluable. As the only white player on the bandstand (and often the only white person in the club), “you had to play your butt off,” Coster recalls. “You were either going to be accepted or get booed off the bandstand.”


The Fillmore gigs showcased his growing confidence on the B3, and before long, he was getting recruited for gigs with Frank Zappa, Gabor Szabo, Malo and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Eventually, he got the call from Santana in 1972, “and that was life altering in every way,” Coster says.


Browne joined Vital Information in 1988. His career path often paralleled Smith’s, though a decade later. Like the drummer, he landed a gig with Jean-Luc Ponty after studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston and went on to play with the fusion supergroup Steps Ahead. In recent years, he’s also collaborated widely with Smith in his Buddy Rich tribute project, Buddy’s Buddies.


“He’s my favorite bassist,” Smith said. “He’s got a great groove, and like me he’s a very good collaborator and co-composer. That’s the way we tend to write, start with a jam and work on a piece of music until it’s complete.”


The band’s latest member is Valentino, a guitarist who stepped in at the last minute for a 2004 European tour when Frank Gambale had to cancel. He joined up full time a few years later, and his mastery of the material is evident on the new Vital Information album “Live! One Great Night” (BFM Jazz), which also features a DVD documenting the Nov. 2007 show at a small club in Ashland, Ore.


“He fits the bill, a great player, and great composer and collaborator,” Smith said. “The groove-oriented, funk-oriented sound and his conception of his guitar fits into what we’re doing. His guitar playing comes more out of the George Benson school, with a beautiful tone and a great sense of R&B rhythm.”


At the same time that Smith was exploring vintage American rhythms and distilling them in lean, sinewy Vital Information tunes, the restlessly creative drummer sought out other rhythmic traditions, most significantly in classical Indian music.


He struck up a friendship with tabla master Zakir Hussain after they worked together in Berkeley saxophonist George Brooks’ band Summit, and ended up spending years investigating North and South Indian rhythmic systems. “One Great Night” features dazzling passages of Carnatic vocal percussion, or konnakol, that are in essence percussion duets with himself.


With its diminutive market share, jazz is a labor of love for just about every musician who plays professionally. But for Smith and Coster, the financial equation balances very differently than for most of their peers. “The thing about Steve is that he’s not only a consummate drummer,” Coster said. “Music is more to him than anything else. He lives to play.


“He books the rooms, books the flights, and he really doesn’t have to do it. He does it because of the love of music.”



Andrew Gilbert

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