It was the early 1990s when this writer first discovered drummer Steve Smith. Not, like so many others, through the music he made with stadium rockers Journey, but via an old VHS tape of his other band Vital Information, performing the stunning Torsten De Winkle ballad 'What Lies Beyond' under a rain-soaked tent at the Brecon Jazz Festival.
Fast forward 25 years, and Smith's latest NYC edition group is far as you can get from the one that played to festival crowds at a time mullets and the GRP All-Stars were still hip. Long gone are the sugary 1980s synths and pointy rock guitar riffs that once proved distinctive to their energetic brew of fusion, now replaced with Rhodes and piano from Mark Soskin and breezy electric guitar from Vinny Valentino, new members respectively more in tune with Larry Young and Charlie Christian than the band's sound of old.
To whistles and applause, Smith opened the show with a short solo that fused subtle snare and cymbal strokes and the melodic tones of his toms, deftly sounding out the theme to what would become 'Oleo'. Adding just keys at first, the Sonny Rollins standard took flight with the addition of some tight strummed guitar and a solid walking line from electric bassist Baron Browne, pushing to the forethe hard swinging energy of Soskin, a one-time member of the great tenorist's band.
Next, owing more to funk than Monk, a lively 'Bemsha Swing' showcased some water-tight groove playing from all. Not least Browne whose squelchy finger- style pattern here dripped like treacle into the deep pocket of a bell-pinging funk beat from Smith. A drummer famed not just for his monstrous technique but all-round versatility, this evening's mixed bag set brought the best out in his playing. Through a brisk reading of Buddy Rich band favourite 'Willowcrest', he drove the music mercilessly, flipping effortlessly between samba, swing and funk styles, adding in a back-beat on snare to raise the intensity of its final few bars.
Soon, energized audience members as far back as the bar were invited to participate. First singing back Indian-style chants during a vocal, kit and tabla jam (led by a headset-sporting Smith), they also helped establish an ambitious arrangement of 'Cherokee' clapping out a 15/8 rhythm over twinkling Rhodes and Wah guitar, leaving Smith and Browne to interweave and improvise around the complex meter. The set also featured a rousing version of 'A Night in Tunisia' that brought many in the room to their feet. Against a constant clack of clave, piano and solid slap bass, Smith thumped out a tribal tom pattern not dissimilar to Gene Krupa's signature 'Sing Sing Sing', sharpening to a fluid roll for a solo, and a series of crisp snare tattoos fit for a marching corp.
During Valentino's 'Bugalulu' the band reclined into a more simple funk groove, clearing space for the guitarist's fast-fingered runs and complimenting scat. Smith's straightforward sticking here was justified until the bass and guitar dropped out and a more syncopated style was introduced around Soskin's percussive riffing on Rhodes. Later, another Rollins tune, the country-styled 'I'm An Old Cowhand' further emphasised the diversity of tonight's set, see-sawing between sassy, piano-driven swing and a slow, clip-clopping woodblock solo, playfully executed by Smith to the side of his kit.
For the rest of the evening the band peddled out mostly funk and swing, a parting jam requiring Smith to dust off his rock chops for an explosive drum solo taking in familiar Queen and Led Zep breaks. But after two hours, and the boom-boom-crack refrain of 'We Will Rock You' still resounding in the ears of this ecstatic crowd, the band eventually left the stage. 25 years on, they never sounded so vital, and what lies beyond for them musically is anyone's guess.
– Mark Youll
– Photos by Carl Hyde