Steve Smith has known fame and success. He has also played with the best musicians in the world. And he is one of the very few who are really concerned about gathering all the tradition of our instrument, renewing and passing it on so its evolution can go further.
I know a man who is a carpenter. “No” -say those who know him well-. “He is not just a carpenter. He is a Master Carpenter. There’s only a few like him in the entire world”. Of course, he would deny that. But what is the difference between him and the rest of carpenters? There are three fundamental differences -they tell me-. Obviously, the first one is that he knows his craft like no one. The second is that his creativity and perseverance have led him to make really difficult, complex and unique pieces. And the third one is crucial in defining him: he’s been all his life commited to learn the secrets of his craft from the ancient times, the techniques, different cultures, timelines, the hows and the whys… But he knows that sooner than later he will have to do something to pass on this inmense wisdom of his art, which is something he is pretty concerned about.
It may seem that Steve Smith has less problems that my carpenter friend. Indeed, he has made fortune and fame, and his position allows him to travel the world showing his knowledge to an expectant audience. But the mission that these two gentlemen try to accomplish by constructing a narration and renewing it needs something more than the audience’s immediate interest to view “something amazing, brilliant”. In a world full of immediacy and anxiety for the next thing, the Master Drummer Steve Smith has set out to make professional and amateur drummers explore the past with him, for us to have memory and knowledge, establish the relations and be able to explain the evolution of the art of drumming by taking one step back and a big step forward.
Being a child born and raised in Whitman (Massachusetts), Steven Elliott Smith got fascinated with the sound that came out of the snare drum rolls that he heard on parades. He had already played -and broken- a toy drumset, obvioulsy not knowing what he was doing. Later at the age of nine, he tried a snare drum at a school exhibition of musical instruments. That was it. He decided he would learn to play drums, and his parents agreed to pay him some classes with Bill Flanagan, a well known big band drummer in the Boston area. Flanagan made Steve play rudiments on a practice pad for two years and learning to read charts. The kid got his hands on a real snare drum only in the third year. Eventually, he could start playing on a full drumkit.
In an interview for Modern Drummer Magazine in 1986, Steve Smith recalls that “my practice sessions then didn’t take place on the drumset. I used to practice pad all the time -just practicing to records. Half of it would be trying to understand the different drum parts and copying them, and the other part would be improvising, using the record for tempo. I think that not practicing on a drumset then was a mistake. It would have been better if I had, because I would have developed faster as a drumset player”.
The musical world for Steve Smith at that age was almost only jazz and swing. He attended the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, where he could see some of the great performers of the genre. As every eager teenager, he got involved in many local bands and played anything and anywhere, from the Bridgewater State University Big Band to garage bands. Inevitably, he discovered Rock, and thus Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker. Being a Boston area resident, he obviously ended up studying in the prestigious Berklee College of Music, from 1972 to 1976. Two of his teachers were Gary Chaffee and Allan Dawson.
Steve Smith’s professional life began in 1974 as the drummer for the Lin Biviano Big Band. Smith was 19 and was also playing bebop with Buddy DeFranco and the free jazz band The Fringe, where he played with George Garzone. Two years later, he went to work with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, with whom he would play one of the best fusion albums in 1977, the amazing “Enigmatic ocean”, which included also guitarist Allan Holdsworth.
In 1978 he already knew the professional environment a little bit, and his curiosity about Rock led Steve Smith to tour with the great guitarist Ronnie Montrose. That tour got him to meet the guys in the band Journey, who needed a new drummer. This is how the golden age of Journey began. Steve Smith recorded six albums with them, which have sold 80 million copies worldwide, along with compilations and live records. Those who only know Steve Smith from his recent work will be surprised when watching and listening to his work with Journey, specially on the live records when he offers a great sense of what an arena-rock show should be. There’s no doubt that singer Steve Perry has one of the greatest voices in the History of Rock music. During the 80’s, Journey were on the top of the world, but as it often happens in those cases, success and ego issues started to create problems. Towards 1986, Steve Perry began to gain control over the band and imposed some changes in the musical orientation. That led to a serious conflict which resulted in firing Steve Smith and bassist Ross Valory.
Steve Smith already had had his time with Rock, fame and sold-out stadiums. Far from being one of those musicians that get lost and forgotten, he decided to re-take his love for jazz and take advantage of his reputation as a pop/rock drummer, recording with a long list of know artists: Bryan Adams, Mariah Carey, Zucchero, Claudio Baglioni, Andre Bocelli, Y&T, Dweezil Zappa, Frank Gambale, Ray Price, Tina Arena, Tony Mac Alpine, Lara Fabian, Corrado Rustici, Savage Garden… During the glory days of Journey, Steve Smith always kept a good relationship with some of the musicians he had played with when he was younger, and he had formed a jazz-fusion band called Vital Information. This probably kept his feet on the earth without losing contact with his musical and personal backgrounds. Vital Information had already published two albums in the 80’s, but Steve Smith decided to push the band further, defining a unique style and publishing albums on a regular basis. Since then, Vital Information has gained a lot of prestige and some awards from the musical industry. Their most recent album is Vitalization, which includes some tracks featuring rhythms from India, which have recently got Steve Smith’s interest.
The mid-90’s saw the long awaited reunion of the classic Journey formation. They recorded the album Trial by fire in 1996. When everything was ready for a big worlwide comeback Tour, singer Steve Perry had an accident that resulted in a hip injury. Perry was diagnosed with a degenerative bone condition and needed a hip replacement. He was reluctant to get into surgery and problems raised again between the band’s members. Seeing that things were getting worse, Steve decided to get out of the project and resume his career. When that happened, he realized that signing an exclusivity contract for that kind of project had made him lose his personal freedom and miss several opportunities with other musicians. Besides, the phone wasn’t ringing since he had removed himself out of the market. He soon started to fix things, so he played and produced 16 electric jazz albums for the Tone Center label, which gave him new opportunities and pushed his career again.
Steve Smith’s musical curiosity is well known and has led him to work with a whole lot of great musicians in many different styles. From 1986 to 1993 he played with Mike Mainieri’s band Steps Ahead, with people like Michael Brecker, Richard Bona and Mike Stern. He’s also played with Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Michael Manring, Stanley Clarke, Randy Brecker, Zakir Hussain, George Brooks, Stuart Hamm, Scott Henderson or Victor Wooten. Throughout the years he has sat in the drummer’s throne for several tributes to Buddy Rich with the Buddy Rich Big Band or the band Buddy’s Buddies, with whom he has recorded two CD’s. In fact, it was in 1994 when he was invited to participate in the tribute album Burning for Buddy: a tribute to the music of Buddy Rich by Neil Peart, who was the coordinator for the project. It was there when Steve Smith told Neil Peart to take some classes with Freddie Gruber, as Peart was searching for a way to renew his own approach to play drums. Smith was at the time one of Gruber’s students, which is a great example of how some great and famous drummers like Smith or Peart are still willing to learn more and remain humble. Smith has had other teachers while being a professional, such as Jim Chapin and Ed Thigpen.
Another of his well known projects is the band Steve Smith’s Jazz Legacy, which recovers the tradition of a swing-jazz ensemble headed by a star-drummer. Jazz Legacy was the continuation of the Buddy’s Buddies when Steve Smith saw that, instead of just play Buddy Rich’s repertoire, they could extend ir to classic pieces from another classic monsters of jazz. With this group of virtuosos, he recovers his love for jazz with no compromises, giving the audience spectacular song covers and paying homage to the great heroes of classic drummers. Steve Smith’s Jazz Legacy has played many concerts and recorded in several occasions, and some of its band members are also in Vital Information.
Back in 1987, Smith recorded two instructional videos Steve Smith Part 1 and Part 2 (re-released in 2004 in DVD format), but it was in 2003 when he became an acclaimed educator with his DVD Drumset Technique & History of the U.S. Beat. Since the release of his first videos, he has attended at many drumming festivals giving masterclasses, and he has made several clinic tours around the world. His 2008 DVD Drum Legacy: standing on the shoulders of giants has also been a great success, paying homage to the greatest drummers of jazz, bebop and swing. Recently he has released another DVD called The art of playing with brushes, a compilation of brush expert performers who play and discuss their technique, which is coordinated by Adam Nussbaum and Steve Smith.
Steve Smith has received great amount of recognition and awards. In 2001, Modern Drummer magazine listed him as one of the best 25 drummers of all time, and the readers voted him as the Best All-Around Drummer for five years in a row. In 2002 he was inducted to the Modern Drummer’s Hall of Fame and Drum! magazine readers chose him as the best jazz drummer in 2008 and 2009. His two DVD’s Drumset Technique & History of the U.S. Beat and Drum Legacy: standing on the shoulders of giants were chosen as the best educational videos in 2003 and 2009 respectively, as it happened with his two previous videos Steve Smith I and II by the American Video Conference.
More recently he has been involved in music from India. Back in 2003 he collaborated with saxophonist George Brooks, who is an expert in the music from Northern India, in the fusion project Summit. In 2005, musician Zakir Hussain got Steve Smith to be the first drummer invited to participate in the annual tribute to Allahrakha, tabla’s indian guru and father of Hussain, in Bombay. They also played together in 2009 at the Carnegie Hall in New York with a special quartet which included Giovanni Hidalgo. In 2010 Smith formed the Raga Bop Trio with Prasanna and George Brooks, playing a fusion of jazz, funk and afro-cuban music. Steve had also made that the members of Vital Information get interested in Indian rhythms, so they explored together these new musical teritories in the recent album Vitalization. In order to learn those rhythms properly, Steve Smith had to study the konnakol system of rhythmic vocalization which uses different pronuntiation of syllables that produce rhythms. In 2011 and 2012 he has been touring with the amazing japanese pianist Hiromi and bassist Anthony Jackson.
Steve Smith has done everything and has seen everything. He had his taste of fame and glory, has played with the best musicians and has participated in all kinds of events, remaining faithfull to his curiosity about different styles and his integrity as a musician. He never stopped working in what he was interested in and has managed to keep the audience’s attention in the origins of music and its variety. Smith has emphasized the need to study music as a cultural expression, its history and its diverse currents. With his extreme abbilities as a player he could simply have lived as an unreachable super-drummer, but he has chosen to travel the entire world expanding his and our knowledge. Steve has kept track of every aspect of the drumming tradition and has updated them, paying homage to those heroes that remained unknown for many of us. Steve Smith is a giant that walks on the shoulders of other giants.
This post is also available in Versión en Español.