A Drummer's Journey: A Conversation With Legend Steve Smith
- Written by Jae Sinnett
- Category: Featured - Radio
- Published: 14 September 2023
Drumming great Steve Smith is simply one of the greatest drummers ever to play the instrument. From his jazz fusion explorations with violinist Jean Luc Ponty in the late 70s, to his long stint with the rock super group Journey, to leading his jazz group Vital Information, Steve is one of the more versatile, high profile, busy and informed drummers playing, touring and recording today. He’s a brilliant technician and also a jazz drumming historian and educator. He’s produced countless educational videos and other instructional material over the decades.
I’ve known Steve now for many years. We are both Sonor drum artists. One of the more nerve-wracking experiences in my life was sharing a drum clinic bill with Steve and opening for him. It was in a hotel ballroom in Richmond and packed with about 150 drummers from wall to wall. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking out on that stage in front of all those drummers and thinking, well, they’re not here to see me and I’ll be sure to make my work quick and fast. Ha! It was an incredible learning experience for me and we became good friends after that event. I had the opportunity to speak with Steve recently. It turned into a very informative interview.
From the big lights and thousands of adoring fans playing classic rock anthems with Journey in stadiums to playing a 100-seat jazz club... what are the psychological parallels for you in these vast differences?
SS: First some differences of the two scenarios: Before the Journey shows I played from 2016-2019, I would feel some nervousness before walking onstage in front of 15,000 to 40,000 people. Once we got through a few tunes I would relax. The pressure of playing rock for that many people feels quite different than playing jazz for a smaller audience. In the rock experience, I felt the responsibility that there were a lot of people with high expectations who had paid a lot of money for a show. They knew the music and wanted to hear the songs played in a way that was close to the original recordings. In the jazz setting, I feel relaxed before going on stage. I still feel the responsibility to meet high expectations, but I know the audience is there to appreciate the individual musicianship of the players and the interaction between the musicians. They know there will be improvisation and the players will be pushing themselves to play at their highest level. For that to succeed, the players need to be relaxed and comfortable playing together.
As for parallels: I prepare myself to play in both situations. I do a warm-up in the dressing room to make sure my chops feel good plus I work on down-regulating my system with slow breathing to be as relaxed as possible. In both the rock world and jazz world, in many ways, my job is the same: Unify the band, and control the tempo, feel, energy and dynamics of the music. I strive to get a good sound out of the drumset and play musically at all times.
It is said that jazz drumming legend Art Blakey was at least 80% deaf at the end of playing jazz. How has your hearing held up through all the years playing high-power rock to jazz and how can drummers protect their hearing today?
SS: My hearing has suffered over the years. In my early years, there was no talk of hearing protection so I practiced for many years without hearing protection. When I played with big bands, Jean-Luc Ponty, Journey, early Vital Information, the music was loud and no one used hearing protection. Over the years that took its toll. I’ve lost my high-end hearing at the frequencies of the snare drum and cymbals. Now I use hearing protection every time I practice. When I toured with Journey from 2016-2019, I used in-ear monitors which was an excellent way to hear what everyone was playing and be able to control the volume level of the band in my mix. The in-ears also reduced the acoustic volume of my drums and cymbals, which is a plus. When I play jazz, I don’t use hearing protection or in-ears but the volume that I play at now is much lower than the volume that I used to play.
I’ve acclimated to playing with musicians playing all acoustic instruments which requires that I lower my overall level. I enjoy playing that way much more than playing at a high-volume level. Even on the recent Journey tours, I didn’t play the drum overly hard or loud. I played for a full sound and let the mics do the work of projecting the drum sound to the audience.
As a fellow jazz drummer, I can see how jazz could help your rock playing but has rock helped your jazz concepts in any way?
SS: Playing rock has helped me be a more compositional drummer. Rock music requires that you orchestrate the songs with interesting parts. That can be applied to straight-ahead jazz and it’s very applicable to jazz-rock which blends both the jazz and rock worlds. Playing with rock musicians has demanded that I play clearly with a wide pulse so the musicians are comfortable and can easily play their parts. Bringing that approach to jazz is much appreciated by most jazz musicians. I’ve gotten a lot of comments from jazz musicians saying that it’s easy to play with me because they can always feel the pulse, no matter how abstract the playing.
How can you play loud and hard without overextending yourself or overstressing your muscles?
SS: It’s all about the internal balance of the kit. In jazz, we focus on the ride cymbal being the dominant voice of the kit. The other instruments in the kit have to be adjusted to the level of the ride cymbal. In a rock setting, the bass drum dictates the overall level of the drum set. I decide what level to play the bass drum and then adjust everything else to that. I’ll play the snare at a level that doesn’t overpower the bass drum. When I play a tom fill, I mix myself and bring out the toms so they have an emotional impact. The cymbals are played only as loud as they need to be played to orchestrate the music the way you want. Again, it’s not about playing loud, it’s playing to get a big sound and retaining control of your inner dynamics. Drumming should feel relaxed and effortless even playing in a loud setting. There is no need to push yourself beyond getting a beautiful sound out of the drums and cymbals.
Time Flies is your latest release with your Vital Information group. It's varied in styles and concepts, and you weave in and out of each beautifully. What do you think about when choosing material to record? The harmony? What would be hip to solo over? Odd meters? Etc. How much input did the other guys have in the material and arrangements?
SS: I worked with both Manuel and Janek in choosing material before the recording session. Some of the music we recorded were tunes we played live when we were first organizing the new version of Vital Information. Other tunes were written for the album such as “Emergence,” “Choreography in Six” and “No Qualm.” Other arrangements were made for the album such as “Un Poco Loco” and “Ugly Beauty.” “Erdnase” is a song by Janek that I love and we played live before we recorded it. I have the final say on the choice of music to record but we work together as a group to make all of the music come to life. I like to have varied feels and tempos to play on the album, and I’m also thinking about what kind of music I want to play when on tour, after the release of the album. The arrangement that Manuel made of “Darn That Dream” is a great brush feature and his take on “What Is This Thing Called Love” has a great vamp in 7/4 for a drum solo. We all love playing Mike Mainieri’s “Self Portrait” and we all wanted to document our version of this classic jazz-rock ballad. We also left ourselves room to improvise from scratch, which is where the title track “Time Flies” came from. The entire companion album A PRAYER FOR THE GENERATIONS came from a suggestion from our special guest, tenor saxophonist George Garzone, that we do some improvising as if “we are offering a prayer.” In the span of about two hours, we created an entire album!
Do you consciously think about how playing straight eighth note styles can potentially affect your swing beat over time?
SS: I have not thought about that. When I practice, most of the time I’m working with a swing feel, and even when I play “straight eighths” there is usually some swing in my playing. I’m not concerned that the straight eights will affect my swing beat in an adverse way. Remember, once you play up-tempo swing, the eighth notes tend to get a little more even, which means we play “straight-eighths” in jazz too!
The sensational Cuban pianist Manuel Valera is playing piano and keyboards, and the versatile bassist Janek Gwizdala is featured prominently on the record. Share some of the advantages you, as a drummer, have playing with them?
SS: Both Manuel and Janek have amazing time and they swing as hard as any of the seasoned pros, from earlier generations, that I’ve worked with over the years. Both are fantastic improvisers and virtuoso soloists, which is important with a trio. With only three players in the group, all three have to share the soloing space to keep the music varied and interesting at a concert. Manuel is a prolific composer/arranger and can provide a lot of material for the group. Janek is also a composer and very creative in the studio and on the gig. Their youth and playing level pushes me in a new way, because in past line-ups, many of the members of Vital Information have been my age or older.
In all the years you've been playing have you had any interest in composing your own music?
SS: In the early years of Vital Information, I did compose a fair amount of music. When writing music with computer programs first came out in the 80s, I used computers to help me compose. After a while it took so much time for me to work out my ideas with the computer or to try to play them on the piano, I felt it was time for me to stop doing that. My piano technique was very limited and it became frustrating continuing to write like that. The time I spent writing was taking away from my development as a drummer so I prioritized drumming over composing, or composing in the traditional sense of composing with pencil to paper. During my time with Journey, the group wrote music collectively, out of jams. The players didn’t come in with songs, they came into rehearsal with ideas. There would be a guitar riff, a bass line, a chord progression, or a drum groove and we’d go from there finding melodies and completing the ideas into finished songs. That model was very interesting and successful and eventually in the mid-90s, I started writing like that with Vital Information. At first, the only person in the group that was comfortable with that concept was keyboardist Tom Coster because he had written like that with the group Santana. Eventually, Frank Gambale, Baron Browne, Tom and I were able to co-compose many tunes with that format, and as a result the music is truly created by the members of the group. I’ve carried on writing like that with Vital Information, and many albums that I’ve produced and played on, including albums with Victor Wooten & Scott Henderson, Frank Gambale & Stu Hamm, Howard Levy, Jerry Goodman & Oteil Burbridge, Larry Coryell & Tom Coster and George Brooks & Prasanna. On the Time Flies album, Manuel Valera and I came up with “Choreography in Six” using the jamming on drum grooves method.
Lastly, as a drummer, the fundamental foundation of the music we play is built on good time and feel. Many drummers and musicians across the board struggle with their time. What things did you focus on to help your time and feel?
SS: The quarter-note swing pulse is the basic feel of all music that was developed in the USA. I grew up with that swing pulse as the fundamental foundation of my time-feel. That quarter-note swing pulse is the basis of the feel of the music, jazz or rock. Time is keeping that pulse, or feel, steady. I developed my time before playing with a click was popularized. I focused on how the pulse felt in my body and then held on to that and made sure I didn’t play anything that interrupted that pulse. Most of the time that led to me being able to keep the tempo even from the beginning to the end of a song. Another tool I used was remembering what the melody of the tune sounded like when it was counted off and I tried to maintain that through a performance. I recorded myself often with a cassette recorder when I was coming up, and listened closely to where I had problems with the time and then worked on correcting that. Another key is that I worked with very good bass players from high school onward. We would discuss the feel and the time and collectively worked to be good timekeepers. But from my point of view, when musicians play together, the pulse is more important than the time. There are countless examples of fantastic recordings where the pulse is strong but the time slows down or speeds up. When a group collectively agrees on the pulse, the tempo can fluctuate and that’s okay. For two examples listen to Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon” and you’ll hear that the track ends up faster than it starts. Listen to “All Of You” from the album Miles Davis & John Coltrane The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6 and you’ll hear that the track slows down, but in both cases the pulse is strong and the music succeeds.
Jae Sinnett hosts Sinnett in Session, The R&B Chronicles, and Students in Session on WHRV FM. He also shares his love of the culinary arts on Cooking with Jae on Facebook every Sunday at 6 p.m. Plus, catch up with past episodes.