Jazz Album Review: Steve Smith & Vital Information’s “Time Flies” — Deft and Muscular

By Jason M. Rubin

Time Flies offers approximately two hours of outstanding jazz, created by true masters with no other agenda than to play their asses off with the tape rolling.

Steve Smith is a talented and prolific drummer whose music has spanned genres since his days as a student in his native Massachusetts: first at Bridgewater State College (now University) and then at Berklee School (now College) of Music, where he studied with the late, great Alan Dawson. He is best known to many as the drummer for the rock band Journey for several years; to others, he is a familiar name on the jackets of many jazz fusion albums, such as those by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, guitarists Neal Schon and Frank Gambale, bassist Jeff Berlin, and the bands Steps Ahead and Vital Information. After a six-year absence, Smith has reassembled Vital Information as a more straight-ahead jazz trio, with Manuel Valera on piano and Janek Gwizdala on bass. Their new release, Time Flies, is a two-CD set of exciting compositions and improvisations (it’s not always easy to tell what’s written and what’s made up) that may prove to be the ideal vehicle for Smith’s deft yet muscular playing.

The first CD comprises the album proper: 12 tunes that are a mix of originals by the trio, and standards from the likes of Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, and Cole Porter (all pianists, interestingly), as well as guests Mike Mainieri on vibes (a former member of Steps Ahead) and Smith’s old Berklee classmate, the estimable George Garzone on tenor sax. There is a palpable energy emanating from every song, whether it’s the improvised title track by the trio plus Garzone, or the frenetic Powell cover, “Un Poco Loco.” There are some lovely ballads as well, such as “Darn That Dream” and “Self Portrait” that feature Valera’s sensitive acoustic piano work and Smith’s supportive brush patterns. Garzone adds sax fire to the steam engine that is Tyner’s “Inception.” It was for this song that Smith brought Garzone into the project to begin with; more on that later.

In Valera and Smith’s kaleidoscopic “Choreography in Six,” Gwizdala manages to step in for a lively solo in between bouts of Smith punishing his tom toms with a rhythmic beating. Valera’s “No Qualm” becomes a feature for Mainieri’s fluid vibes, while the intro to “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is a feisty duet featuring Garzone and Smith. Though Valera does use some electric keyboards on the second CD, the album proper is an all-acoustic affair with each musician drawing the purest natural tones from their respective instruments.

Steve Smith & Vital Information. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Recording for the album began in late November 2022 and concluded on December 4. On December 3, Smith welcomed Garzone into the studio to play on “Inception.” Once that was done, it was clear that Garzone wasn’t. So then came the one-take improvised “Time Flies.” That was followed by a couple more numbers, including John Coltrane’s “One Down, One Up,” which opens the second CD. After that, the second CD becomes an improvised eight-part suite called “A Prayer for the Generations,” all but the final part featuring the trio plus Garzone.

As Smith explains in the liner notes, “Each piece happened one time, in the order presented here. At the end of the afternoon with George we listened back and loved the results. We realized we had created an entire album in the space of a couple of hours.” It is to the credit of all the musicians that these group improvisations sound so naturally played and arranged. Oddly, Part 4 of the “Prayer” is a take on Joe Zawinul’s “Directions,” the one time Valera’s electric keyboards feel intrusive. Still, Garzone takes his horn into the stratosphere, which helps the harsh keyboard sounds blend in. If nothing else, it shows there is nary a disparity between the cover tune and the seven improvised pieces that surround it.

All told, Time Flies offers approximately two hours of outstanding jazz, created by true masters with no other agenda than to play their asses off with the tape rolling. Sadly, the group’s recent U.S. tour included no local dates but this 2-CD set offers enormous rewards that listeners can enjoy over and over again. One would be hard-pressed to find another recording in Smith’s impressive and extensive discography that can match it.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for nearly 40 years, more than half of those as senior creative lead at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency, where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His latest book, Villainy Ever After (2022), is a collection of classic fairy tales told from the point of view of the villains. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. jasonmrubin.com.

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