By Josef Woodard | Published October 2022
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.
Complete Columbia Recordings: ooks Bad Feels Good; Questionable Arrivals; V.G.; Vital Information; All That Is; Stoughton To Stockholm Samba; 13th Month; Future Primitive; Thank You Mr. Edison; The Strut; Orion; Blade; The Adventures Of Hector And Jose; Shadows Past; Blues To Bappe II; One Flight Up; Island Holiday; Johnny Cat; Novato Sunset; Jave And A Nail; Jave And A Nail Revisited; Global Beat; Black Eyebrows; In A Low Voice; Traditions In Transition; Blues To Bappe I; Forget Me Not; Please Don’t Feel Bad; The Chant; Maltese Connection; Celebration (Fiafiaga); Babaluwaiye (The Creator); Sunday Afternoon; The Perfect Date; Whenever You’re Ready; 50/50. (3:30:00)
Personnel: Steve Smith, drums; Dean Brown, Mike Stern, Frank Gambale, Eef Albers, Torsten de Winkel, Ray Gomez, guitar; David Wilczewski, saxophones; Tim Landers, Kai Eckhardt, bass; Tom Coster, Kit Walker, Jay Oliver, keyboards; Andy Narell, steel drums; Lenny Castro, Mike Fisher, Armando Peraza, percussion.
Ordering Info: vitalinformation.com