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Reviewers: Tony Augarde [Editor], Steve Arloff, Nick Barnard, Pierre Giroux, Don Mather, James Poore, Glyn Pursglove, George Stacy, Bert Thompson, Sam Webster, Jonathan Woolf

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BFM Jazz 302 062 430 2



1. Bemsha Swing

2. Time Check

3. The Brush Off

4. Willowcrest

5. Viewpoint One

6. Take Five

7. Viewpoint Two

8. Chan’s Song (Never Said)

9. Oleo

10. A Final Viewpoint

11. The Blackhawk

12. The Bottom Line

Steve Smith – Drumset

Mark Soskin – Piano, Fender Rhodes

Baron Browne – Bass

Andy Fusco – Alto sax

Vinny Valentino – Guitar

Walt Weisskopf – Tenor sax (tracks 2, 4)

When I saw Steve Smith’s group Vital Information in London possibly 20 years ago, I was surprised to find that such a talented band was not more widely known. I had mainly gone along to see them because they were led by a drummer and, as a drummer myself, I naturally have an instinct to hear such ensembles. I found that, in Steve Smith himself, they had a master percussionist with an enviable technique. The personnel of the group has understandably changed since those days but the new members are no slouches, and the whole quintet makes some wonderful music.

The opening Bemsha Swing proves this. Pianist Mark Soskin introduces Thelonious Monk’s tune in classic Monkish style and then the whole band arrives in jazz-fusion style, powered by Smith’s muscular drumming and underpinned by Mark Soskin’s keyboard, Baron Browne’s sturdy bass and Vinny Valentino’s comping guitar. This is one of the few albums I have heard recently where the drummer has been fully audible, and I rejoice in it. Too seldom the percussion, which should be heard as an essential rhythmic component of any band, is tucked away in the mix so that you can hardly perceive it. Throughout this CD, Steve Smith’s drums play a major role. In the sleeve-notes, Steve describes the band as “a jazz funk fusion group” and it unashamedly harks back to those days when jazz fusion was the primary mode. Its legacy can be heard in the eight-in-a-bar beats which so often accompany jazz performances today – and which are widely accepted, even by some pundits who generally sneer at jazz-fusion. Yet this band’s repertoire is not confined to one style but moves through a variety of modes and tempos.

Smith’s commanding drums are heard introducing most tracks, which gives those tunes an exhilaration seldom found in other bands. Some of these prefaces can outstay their welcome but they certainly add a certain something. A good example is Sonny Rollins’ Oleo, where Steve’s drum intro blends seamlessly into the theme statement. This leads into a typically classy piano solo by Mark Soskin, followed by exciting eights shared between drums, guitar and alto sax. The Brush Off displays Steve’s more gentlemanly style with some fine brushwork. Three tracks with “Viewpoint” in their titles are short drum meditations.

I particularly like the The Bottom Line, recorded at a jazz festival in Philadelphia, which pursues a fairly sedate course through a neat melody and some excellent solos which encounter several clever tempo changes. The ending involves a showy drum solo leading to a coda which dramatically pauses before finishing in a huge crescendo.

Steve Smith is indubitably the main voice in this group but that doesn’t prevent the other musicians from providing first-class solos on some catchy themes, mostly composed by members of the band. I recommend this album to all listeners. But for drummers it is essential.

Tony Augarde

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