Drummer Returns To His 1st Love

Posted: September 16, 1988

Making the transition from the large arenas and stadiums, where the music booms and the faithful scream their approval, to small clubs, where the gathering is inclined to groove on a more subdued level, can be a traumatic experience for a rock performer.

Usually, you see, the trip is not made by choice.

It's different with Steve Smith, though. It wasn't a case of belonging to a group that fell out of favor with the masses, forcing him into relative oblivion. Smith served as the drummer for Journey from 1978 until 1984, when he departed to pursue his first love, jazz.

Actually, Smith had been dabbling with his jazz group, Vital Information, before officially parting company with Journey. But then, it was merely a side project. Returning to the small clubs was no problem for Smith, who will be performing with Vital Information Wednesday night at Memphis.

"The people who come (to the clubs) aren't there to hear the hits," he said. "They come to hear some creativity. When people see this band, they see it's really a jazz group. It's not happy, pop jazz; it's contemporary, real jazz."

Smith's roots are deep in jazz. While attending high school in his native Boston, he formed a jazz group. Smith attended the Berklee College of Music, where he studied jazz drumming and then joined jazz volinist Jean Luc Ponty's band.

"The Journey guys saw me in that band, when we played Cleveland," Smith said.

When Journey subsequently axed Aynsley Dunbar, who had complained about his drumming role in the group's hit-song style, Smith was called on to take over. ''It wasn't boring because it was new for me," Smith said. "I had serious holes in my rock drumming, and Journey was an educational experience."

After seven years, though, enough was enough.

"Since then, musically it has been great for me," Smith said. "I was finally able to play with the people I admire. I toured with Steps Ahead for a year and worked with people like Ahmad Jamal and Joe Zawinul."

Steve Smith with Vital Information at Memphis, 2121 Arch St. Shows are at 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets: $11 in advance; $13 on Wednesday. Phone: 569-1123.

JAZZ, POP OR BOTH. When Sade completed an eight-month tour in 1986 - fueled by the success of her first two albums, Diamond Life and Promise - there were no immediate plans for additional touring or recording, so she broke up the band and disappeared from view.

The British tabloids - well-known for their passion for a good rumor or two - went to work. At various times, reports had it that Sade had retired, had purchased an English soccer team, had a child, had married, had divorced a week later, had gone insane . . . well, you get the idea.

Actually, Sade had taken a residence in Madrid. Eventually, she resurfaced to put the rumors to rest and regroup. A result was the recent release of Sade's latest album, Stronger Than Pride, which picks up where she left off.

Sade was born the daughter of a Nigerian teacher and an English nurse. When she was 4, the couple divorced and Sade moved with her mother to London. While growing up, Sade's musical influences included such singers as Marvin Gaye, Nina Simon, Billie Holiday and Al Green - a diverse lot that shaped a vocal style that surfaced with such dynamic force in 1984.

Labeling the singer is no easy chore. It is difficult to determine whether she is a jazz vocalist with pop leanings or a pop singer with definite jazz influences. Compounding the perplexity is that Sade has had a considerable amount of commercial success, which jazz singers are not supposed to have. Until that success, though, there was little doubt that Sade was performing jazz.

None of this is important, of course, what counts is that Sade is one of the most exciting vocal discoveries of the '80s.

Sade at the Mann Music Center at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday. Tickets: $20, $25 and $30. General admission tickets are $12.50 in advance and $14.50 day of show. Phone: 878-7707.

SUCH A NATURAL. Harvie Swartz was a natural pianist. "I remember when I was very young, 5 or 6, I used to just jump on the piano and I could play all of the tunes on the radio. I didn't like lessons. I would just play free and make up tunes."

At age 15, the Chelsea, Mass., native changed his mind about lessons and began taking piano classes at Boston's Berklee College of Music. Yep, Swartz was just a natural pianist.

And so, he became a bass player.

Swartz's potent brand of bass playing is on display at Morgan's, where he and his group, Urban Earth, are appearing through tomorrow night. Despite the high-tech, electric quality of the band, it is misleading to call this a fusion outfit, which would suggest rock ingredients in the music. What we're talking about here is jazz.

Harvie Swartz and Urban Earth at Morgan's, 17 E. Price St., at 9, 10:30 p.m. and midnight today and tomorrow. Tickets: $12. Phone: 844-6067.

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