Steve Smith & Vital Information

Complete Columbia Recordings
(Wounded Bird)

On the historical timeline of jazz fusion, Vital Information is a band that showed up a bit late to the party. By the time they entered the scene with their 1983 debut, dynamic drummer and bandleader Steve Smith was channeling ideas and energies from pillars of the genre that were already somewhat in retreat from the limelight.

In retrospective hindsight — the kind of overview we can glean from a new four-disc reissue set of Columbia releases from 1983 to ’88 — there are detectable echoes of electric Miles Davis, Weather Report and Return to Forever, in tamer, tidier forms. At the same time, we can detect elements of Smith’s high-profile pop gig with Journey, if in wilder and more stretched-out forms.

Part of the problem in judging how well this music stands the test of time — how vital it sounds to modern ears — is that the calculated vapidity of smooth jazz, which flourished after these albums were released, lends an unflattering and somewhat unfair retrospective point of comparison. On too many of the tracks here, especially after the tougher-spirited 1983 debut, a smooth association diminishes the music’s integrity and aging process, although there are sophisticated elements in this body of work and strong playing by the likes of saxophonist David Wilczewski, guitarists Dean Brown and Mike Stern, keyboardist Tom Coster and other guests.

After the fusion-fired vitality of the debut, including the anthemic “Looks Good, Feels Good,” the follow-up album, Orion, asserted itself in a bigger, splashier and more reverb-doused way, suggesting a type of arena fusion.

With the album Global Beat came a further dip into studio-polished sheen and ’80s pop sound values, combined with some glib themes out of the proto-smooth pocket.

The Columbia-era finale, Fiafiaga (Celebration), introduces the hyper-nimble post-fusioneer guitarist Australian Frank Gambale, a bandmate for years to come.

As the group evolved beyond its Columbia years, moving on to smaller labels and more creative control, the going got more interesting — even including brief flirtations with collective improvisation. But this compendium, despite its shortcomings in retrospect, provides a valuable reminder of the band’s major-label roots.

On Sale Now
September 2023
Kris Davis
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