Besides being a hard-at-work drummer, Steve tours the world in numerous clinics where he shares his vast knowledge of drumming. Aside from his very busy schedule, he was able to turn out two, award winning, educational DVDs for Hudson Music. Steve’s music is passionate and his drum playing is poetry to the ear.
While on tour, in Los Angeles, JazzReview got the chance to chat a bit with this very talented drummer.
JazzReview: How did you first get involved in music?
Steve Smith: My parents bought me a toy drum set when [I was] two years old. That didn’t last very long because it was a toy and I didn’t know how to play. I didn’t actually start playing until I was nine-years old.
When nine-years old, there was an assembly at school where all the musical instruments were being demonstrated. At the end of the assembly you could choose to play something. Well, I chose the snare drum because it really excited me. I really loved the sound of the drum. I used to like to listen to the drum line go by with the parades.
When I did start, I had lessons right away. My teacher was a big band drummer. Now this was in the 1960s and he was in his 60s. He had played in the 30s and the 40s big band era. So the original style that I learned was this big band/swing style of drumming, because that was the way he taught.
It was very fortunate for me to learn this style because it gave me the background to be a jazz drummer and it also, technically gave me the background to play anything because it is technically harder to play than rock and roll music. So because I grew up in the 60s, I was able to easily and intuitively play rock. But because of the education, I was able to play jazz. Then just being part of the times and living through the 70s, I saw the birth of jazz-rock fusion. Having both a background of jazz and rock, I was easily able to put that together into a jazz-rock style. So in a short description, that is how I got my background in drumming.
JazzReview: I read that Buddy Rich was a big influence for you. What was it about his work that got your attention?
Steve Smith: Buddy Rich was my favorite drummer growing up. That had a lot to do with my teacher who used to love Buddy Rich and all the great swing drummers. I also saw Buddy Rich a number of times, probably more than twenty times, and to see him was an incredible experience. The guy’s energy was just unbelievable and the way he played the drums, technically, was so advanced. The way he played for the big band musically was at the highest level of musicianship. He was inspiring in every way.
JazzReview: Did you ever get to perform with him?
Steve Smith: Well I was too young at the time. I was in a big band that, one time, was the opening act for the Buddy Rich Big Band. I was probably 17-years old or something like that. So, no, I didn’t really know him or get to play with him. That’s a good thing [laughs].
JazzReview: Why is that a good thing?
Steve Smith: Because, you wouldn’t want to go against Buddy Rich [laughs].
JazzReview: Well that brings me to my next question. How did you get together with Buddy’s Buddies?
Steve Smith: After Buddy Rich died, his daughter Kathy asked me to play some dates with the Buddy Rich Big Band, which I was honored to do. So I played a number of dates and went on tour with the band. During that time, the idea for Buddy’s Buddies was born. Buddy’s Buddies, being a quintet, is made up of myself, Steve Marcus on tenor and soprano sax, Andy Fusco on alto sax, Baron Browne on bass, and Mark Soskin on piano. We play a lot of the music that Buddy Rich played with his big band, but it is arranged so it works for a quintet. We have three CDs out right now and we do a fair amount of touring every year.
JazzReview: The last two Buddy’s Buddies CDs were recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Why was the decision made to make the CDs from those live performances?
Steve Smith: Well, we had a gig at Ronnie Scott’s and it was one of the clubs that Buddy Rich used to love to play at. He played there every year and the guys in the band hadn’t played there since they played with Buddy. So it was real special for them to go back to London and play at Ronnie Scott’s. Buddy has at least three records out that were live at Ronnie Scott’s. It just made a lot of sense to do that for his legacy, and also it’s a great club. The audience is very enthusiastic and there is a recording studio built into the club, so it makes it easier to record. We played there a week and we played six straight nights. What we did was we recorded the last two nights. By that time we were very comfortable playing the club, so we just let the tape roll on the last two nights. Out of that, we got enough material for the CDs. Exactly what it is, is set one and set two and we just recorded the sets in their entirety. They came out very nice.
JazzReview: Do you find any difference between your audience here in the United States and those overseas?
Steve Smith: That’s a good question. I’d say as far as jazz goes, we have the most success on the coasts, the west coast being L.A., San Francisco, and occasionally Seattle. Then on the east coast there are a lot of jazz fans and a lot of enthusiasm for jazz in Pennsylvania, New York City, New York State, Boston, and Washington D.C. You can move across the U.S., to say, Dayton, Ohio, and Chicago, and Indianapolis, a few cities like that. But interestingly, it’s very difficult to play jazz, for me anyway, with both Buddy’s Buddies and Vital Information outside of that range of the United States.
JazzReview: And why is that?
Steve Smith: There’s just a cultural love of the music that happens in those areas and there are a lot of jazz clubs that we can drive from one to the next and take a road trip. I’ve had difficulty coming out of that circuit. For example, playing in the south and southwest. The cities are more spread out, and there doesn’t seem to be a support system for jazz clubs. Unfortunately, as a result of that, there are less jazz fans. One of the things we notice is that when an area has a club, we get great reception from the people. It’s because they are hip to jazz.
When we play in Europe, there is more opportunity to tour because all the cities and countries are much closer together. So we can route it to where we can drive from country to country and play jazz clubs. A lot of the major cities in Europe have jazz clubs and they all have audiences that have been listening to jazz for years and have a great appreciation for it. We found that the audiences are very appreciative wherever we go. It’s just interesting that not every place, culturally, has developed a listening audience for jazz.
JazzReview: Do you have a favorite place or club that you love performing at?
Steve Smith: There’s a few real favorites. Ronnie Scott’s is probably the number one favorite. Catalina’s Bar and Grill, this club in L.A., is always fun to play at. There’s quite a nice circuit in every city I love play.
JazzReview: I noticed that with the recent Vital Information CD, "Come On In," you and the other band members wrote the music. Is there any particular styles or routines that you go through when coming up with music for a CD?
Steve Smith: Well, what we’ve developed as a writing style is to work with grooves. First of all, that’s the most basic way we write. I’ll come up with a drum groove and that will inspire a bass part from Baron Browne. Then Tom Coster will start playing some chords on the keyboard and Frank Gambale will play some chords on the guitar. Out of that, we develop melodies and that is one way we have been writing. We just jam with these ideas, let a tape role and record an hour or so of jamming. Then we listen back to it, find what we feel are the best parts and put those together to form the basis of the composition. Then we work on the fine points of turning it into a real tune. The other method is that the guys just bring in finished tunes. Frank or Tom will bring in tunes, written down, that they have come up with on their own. Then we work on those as a group and come up with our interpretation of those tunes.
JazzReview: Were there any goals you or the band wanted to achieve when making the CD?
Steve Smith: Well, yeah. We wanted to make a record that we felt represented us currently where we’re at musically, and have some tunes that were a lot of fun to play live. We play all of the tunes on the record, live. It’s important that we have music to keep our live show fresh, because we don’t want to continue to keep playing the same songs over again. Then, the record makes a complete statement and we feel that we did that. We’re very happy with the direction and the results of the record.
JazzReview: Were there any risks that were taken on this record?
Steve Smith: I don’t know if you’d call it a risk because so many things have been done on records [laughs]. For us, we added different elements. For instance, we played a few of the tunes in some odd time signatures, which we really haven’t done before. There were some tunes in 9/4, one in 5/4, another has parts in 7/4. Another thing I did, which was different, was play a little hand drum called the udu. The udu is a little hand percussion instrument. I had never done that before. Another thing is we really developed a harmonic side of the group and got more into sophisticated chord changes. In some ways we felt we were lacking in that department. We’ve had tunes that had a lot of vamps for the solo section verses chord changes. So we’ve really made an effort to write tunes that had more chord changes.
JazzReview: How has the tour with Vital Information been coming along?
Steve Smith: The tours have been great. We’ve been all over Europe. We’ve been all around the east coast of the U.S. and right now, we’re touring the west coast. We’re going to Moscow next week. Then I have a weekend in Salt Lake City with Buddy’s Buddies, then some more dates with Vital Information in Oakland. Then everyone will be off and touring with other people for a while. We’ll get back together in the fall. I’m going to be touring with Steps Ahead this summer. That’s a group with Michael Brecker on saxophone, Mike Stern on guitar, Mike Mainieri on the vibes, and Richard Bona on bass. The five of us will be touring the world June, July, and August. I also have a lot of clinics and some other group things that I’m doing. In the fall I’ll go back on tour with Vital Information.
JazzReview: You mentioned clinics. I know you’ve been touring for years on these clinics. Can you explain exactly what you do while on these clinic tours?
Steve Smith: I go all over the world demonstrating U. S. drumming, a way I like to see it, because the drum set is a U.S. instrument. I basically explain a lot of the fundamentals of what it takes to play the instrument, and talk about some of the ideas of playing U.S. music. By that I mean jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, country, and all the different styles of music that came out in the United States.
This year I’ll do a whole Asia clinic tour. I’ll go to Hong Kong, Beijing, and all around Japan. That will be an interesting tour because I’ll be bringing the drum set to these cultures that the drum set isn’t really a part of their original culture, but they’ve adopted it. Most cultures around the world have brought in the drum set, but the roots of it come from the United State. So it’s always good to hear about the instrument from a U. S. drummer.
JazzReview: Is that what led you to do the educational DVDs for Hudson Music?
Steve Smith: Yeah. The more I did the clinics, the more refined my teaching became. I talked about it to the people at Hudson Music. They were wondering what I was up to. When they heard what I was talking about, they were very interested to document it on a DVD. So that’s what we did. The DVDs are four and a half hours long and it’s two discs. The first disc is about drum set techniques called, "Drum Set Techniques." It really gets into the fine points of that. The second disc is called, "The History of the U. S. Beat." In this disc I go through the evolution of the drum set and I also describe the evolution of U. S. music and all the different styles how one style led to the next and so on. It’s demonstrated, not only by me playing the drums, but with music and bands performing music as well.
JazzReview: I read that that you’re into Indian rhythms now. Why don’t you tell me a little more about how you got into that?
Steve Smith: That’s a new study that I’m doing and a new fascination that I have...the drumming and music of India. So I’ve been studying with different Indian drummers and I’ve been learning some of the fundamentals of Indian rhythm. That’s something I’ve been applying to my playing. I’ve gotten a chance to play with some great Indian musicians and I’m actually going there next week. Zakir Hussain, who’s the world’s greatest tabla player, has invited me to perform at a memorial concert for his father, Alla Rakha. His father was one of the great tabla players ever and he died February 3rd, a few years ago. Now every February 3rd there is a memorial concert in Mumbai, India. So I’m going to be there playing on the U. S. drum set for them this year.
JazzReview: Is Zakir Hussain one of your favorite drummers now?
Steve Smith: Zakir is probably one of my favorite drummers in the whole world. He’s incredible.
JazzReview: I know that you have upcoming performances with the group George Brooks Summit. Can you tell me a little more about the group and how you got involved with them?
Steve Smith: George Brooks Summit is the group that I’m in with Zakir, Kai Eckhardt, and Fareed Haque. We do gigs here and there. We have a gig coming up in San Francisco. We have toured around the world, but we don’t have a big tour coming up this year.
How I got involved with them was that I met George on a gig that I was doing with Larry Coryell. George knew that I was into Indian music and when he was putting a new band together, he asked if I’d be interested in being in it.
JazzReview: Are there any other musicians that you plan to work with or any other projects coming up?
Steve Smith: I have a project coming up with Dave Liebman on the sax, Aydin Esen who is a great Turkish keyboard player, and on bass will be Matt Garrison. We have a record scheduled to do in May for the Tone Center label.
JazzReview: Well, it was a pleasure speaking with you and I wish you the best of luck on all your endeavors.
Steve Smith: Same here.