Berks Jazz Fest 2009: Steve Smith & Vital Information

World renowned Steve Smith and his band Vital Information put on an entertaining � and informative -- show Saturday evening at Gerald Veasley�s Jazz Base in the Reading Crowne Plaza Hotel. Before the show began, the chatter in the audience reflected how eager everyone was to see what magic Steve Smith was going to bring to his drumming on this, the second night of the Berks Jazz Festival.

Joining Smith was Baron Browne on bass guitar, Tom Koster (formerly of Santana) on keyboards, and Vinny Valentino, the latest addition to this band, on guitar. A guest appearance by Andy Fusco on saxophone rounded out the evening. These artists come out of rich musical background, having made their mark on the music industry even before joining Steve Smith. Fusco is part of a second band that Steve Smith leads, known as Jazz Legacy, a more straight-ahead jazz group dedicated to the legacy of drummer Buddy Rich and many other great drummers. The set list included Time Tunnel, Interwoven Rhythms � Synchronous, Get Serious, Seven and a Half, Interwoven Rhythms � Dialogue, JBen Jazz, Bottom Line, The Blackhawk or Looks Bad, Feels Good, The Closer, and for an Encore, The Trouble With/Jimmy Jive.

Vital Information has the corner on being a tight band; there is such precision in every piece they play, not a space or note is wasted. And the rhythm of the songs was nothing short of amazingly complex and perfectly executed. Twice during the show, the audience was given �vital information� about music and rhythm that the artists gleaned on recent trips to India. Smith explained the time the band members learned to reframe in their minds the beat of a song in 15:8, simplified by musicians in India who taught them to use 7 � time, which is 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7-and-a-half -1 & 2 and so forth in a repetitious pattern. He clapped this beat for us, and so it was easy to pick up�at first. But as they played and the song became more layered and complicated, it was nearly impossible for us to find the beginning of the phrasing of beats. Wow, and some of us really worked at it!

The audience was also educated in the use of voice percussion called konokol. Smith and Valentino demonstrated these vocalizations which articulate the complex rhythm in a song. There were patterns to the type of vocalization used for various phrasings in the song. It was quite fascinating to see how voice percussion is used and interesting that even perhaps one of the most famous drummers in the world can still add something new to his repertoire in the area of percussion.

When watching a great drummer like Steve Smith, somehow I begin to believe that if I could just sit in his seat for awhile, I feel certain I could produce some decent sounds and stay with the beat using syncopation and lots of other effects to make it interesting. Although I�m eager to try it, it doesn�t take long before I realize that this is probably pretty unlikely! While Smith makes it appear effortless, he has so many sticks and tricks and variations of the way he gets just the right effect that it would be impossible for almost anyone in the world to duplicate, and there are probably only a handful of drummers who can do it.

In a sense, Vital Information�s shows are about rhythm, about how challenging and complicated the music can become. Despite my love for a more recurring melody line and perhaps less complication at times, in a live show like this it�s easy to get lost in what each artist is bringing to it and in the joy they feel having accomplished what they set out to do by the end of the song. Speaking of the ending of the songs, they were superb in every case. Again, perfectly executed, all together, exactly on the same space in time for each final note.

It�s the second time I walked away from a Vital Information show simply mesmerized by the talent musicians can exhibit and the fun atmosphere that is created when a group of people sit and appreciate what a rare treat is before us.

Vital Information�s latest CD, entitled �Vitalization,� was released in 2007. Please visit to learn more about Steve Smith and the band.

Happy Jazzin'

Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Reading, Pennsylvania

Photo: Michael C. Packard