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Drummer Steve Smith hosts five different groups during residency at Birdland in NYC

Drummer Steve Smith
c/o the artist
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Steve Smith

It’s not uncommon for a high-profile jazz artist to perform at a club for a week’s worth of shows. In New York City, the usual run would be Tuesday through Sunday. What is less common is five weeks at one club, as Steve Smith is in the midst of doing at Birdland from September 16 through October 16, playing with five different configurations.

The drummer started the first week of the residency with the latest version of his band Vital Information, which now features Manuel Valera on keyboards and Janek Gwizdala on electric bass. Smith got to know Gwizdala’s playing from tours with Mike Stern, Randy Brecker and others. “He’s an incredible electric bassist, a really unique player,” Smith says. “When I was in the process of organizing a new group, he was my first choice. And luckily, he’s available to do it.” With its first album released in 1983, Vital Information will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2023. Wounded Bird Records recently released The Complete Columbia Recordings, a four-CD set of the first four Vital Information albums.

For several years, producer/curator Milan Simich has put together an ensemble and show called “Coltrane Revisited,” presented, pandemic period aside, at Birdland during the week of John Coltrane’s birthday (September 23). This year the group features Vincent Herring, Jimmy Greene, and Greg Osby on saxophones, Helen Sung on piano (on September 20-21), Jeremy Pelt on trumpet (September 22-24), with a rhythm section of Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Smith on drums. The band is performing the entire Giant Steps album, which features iconic compositions such as “Naima,” “Cousin Mary,” Syeeda’s Song Flute,” Mr. P.C,” and of course, the title song. Such is the reputation of “Giant Steps” that a New Yorker cartoon showed a brain surgeon in the operating room during a procedure, saying, “Well, it’s not playing ‘Giant Steps.’”

Smith says that he always prepares for the week of Coltrane’s music, but this album posed greater challenges. “One of the things that’s so interesting for me is I have listened to a lot of his music but listening and then playing the music is quite different,” he explains. “To learn the music, I have to really dig in and find the right tempos, learn the form of the song and then integrate the form of the song into my memory so when we get on stage and we play I’m real clear on what it is that we’re doing. His music and all the music he’s been involved in is extremely fun to play and some of it’s hard to play. With ‘Giant Steps’ itself, the tempo is quite fast but with the third tune, ‘Countdown,’ the tempo is as fast as one can possibly play, so there’s a physical challenge. Meeting the demands of playing the tempo and tuning into the form – as a drummer – I need to be really clear on what the form in some of the songs are. And some of the forms are not typical. They have various sections that can be, let’s say, odd. So I do a lot of homework before I go to these [Coltrane] gigs.”

During the pandemic in 2020, Smith performed a virtual version of “Coltrane Revisited” with Donny McCaslin and Eric Alexander on tenor saxophones, playing music from both Ascension and A Love Supreme. Watch that here:

Steve Smith with Eric Alexander and Donny McCaslin playing Coltrane

During September 29 through October 2, the Bouncin’ With Bud Trio will perform the music of Bud Powell, specifically material from his album The Scene Changes. Smith and Plaxico will be joined by pianists Helen Sung (on September 29), Manuel Valera (on September 30-October 2). Smith says that Powell’s compositions offer a different challenge for him and the trio. “A lot of them are AABA and are relatively typical,” Smith says. “But then, for example with ‘Tempest Fugue,’ the meat of the tune is an AABA tune, but then he’s got a separate intro and he’s got segues into the solo section and endings that are, let’s say, additional material. It’s like learning a Chick Corea tune. It’s not just a simple as you think it might be because there’s all these extra parts added into it. That’s one of the challenges of playing the Bud Powell music is being clear about all these segues, as well as introductions and endings.”

During the fourth week on October 7-9, Smith and The Misterioso Quartet featuring Tim Hagans on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar, and Ben Allison on bass, will play the music of Thelonious Monk. For the fifth and final week at Birdland (October 13-16), Smith will play with the group called Four In One, a bassless ensemble with Jimmy Greene and Greg Osby on saxes, Paul Bollenback and Mitch Stein on guitars, also playing the music of Thelonious Monk.

All of the shows except for the “Coltrane Revisited” sets will be presented in the Birdland Theater, a smaller venue that has a capacity of about 100. “It’s actually more acoustic-oriented so, especially me as a drummer, I have to be aware of overall level to not play too loud,” Smith says. “I have to make sure I’m playing at just the right level so I blend nicely with the other players.”

For more information visit birdlandjazz.com.

Watch this performance of “Mr. P.C.” from “Coltrane Revisited” at Birdland in 2021, with Jaleel Shaw and Vincent Herring on saxophones, Helen Sung on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Smith on drums:

Steve Smith and company performing "Mr. P.C." at Birdland in 2021

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”