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Vital Tech Tones 2: Liner Notes

It's time to reclaim the f-word. Enough with this stigma about fusion. That once vital genre -- pioneered in the late '60s by visionaries with raw passion and a pent-up desire for stretching -- got scuttled somewhere around the late '70s by slick, over-rehearsed clones who co-opted the tag and promptly de-fanged the music in some lame-o attempt at making nice-nice with radio. While they still called it fusion, these purveyors of puerile pap had more in common with the Archies and Andy Gibb than "The Inner Mounting Flame" and "Emergency!" They watered it down, squeezed the life out of it, putting a friendlier, happy-face spin on it until...voila! ...ten years down the road you get "smooth jazz."

Fast forward to 2000: A kind of fusion renaissance is in full effect and has been steadily brewing for years. The signs are everywhere. Reissues of the Mahavishnu Orchestra are selling at a startling pace. No less than five recording projects have recently surfaced in which bands pay tribute to Miles Davis's highly provocative electric period of the early '70s. An online fusion magazine has emerged with a full-blown member base. Meanwhile, a whole host of renegades is going against the grain with their own brand of vital, aggressively virtuosic fusion music. It's a two-pronged attack:

On the one hand, there are the 40-something musicians who came up with the likes of Tony Williams Lifetime, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever. Out of sheer frustration -- and not a small dose of nostalgia -- they are returning to their roots and blowing with abandon once again. Count RTF's Lenny White and Stanley Clarke in that number. Last year they formed the powerful fusion band Vertu as just such a stretching vehicle.

On the other hand, there is a growing legion of accomplished 20-something players who are just now discovering the high energy joys of fusion's golden era and are forming bands to pick up on what those pioneers were putting down 30 years ago. What comes around goes around, indeed.

The message to musicians is clear: it's safe to play again. We, the audience, can handle whatever you throw at us. So don't pander with sonic pablum anymore. No need to browbeat us with obvious, blatantly-stated 4/4 backbeats. Go ahead, imply time. Mix up the meter a bit. And above all, don't repeat that nifty melodic nugget again and again and if teaching a child "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

Follow instead the lead of Vital Tech Tones, a band of three virtuosos who put a premium on pushing the envelope and challenging listeners in the process. They threw down the gauntlet in 1998 with their self-titled debut, establishing that initial chemistry while boldly stating their intentions: "We came to play." They explode out of the box on this kinetic follow-up for Tone Center -- the fusion label started up by metal maven Mike Varney -- taking it up a notch in terms of energy, interplay and open-ended stretching.

"The thing we really focus on in this band is the virtuosity," says ringleader Steve Smith, the versatile drummer who broke in with Jean-Luc Ponty in the '70s before joining rock supergroup Journey and later founding Vital Information. "That's something we bring to the forefront for ourselves and we use that to coax each other, to push each other to those heights. With Vital Information I'm not so concerned with virtuosic playing. We have more of an overall sound that we're putting across so we're focusing more on the vibe of the tunes. We have solos but virtuosity is not an over-riding concern. It is with this band."

Like the process for the first album, most of the tunes on this follow-up started with some drum ideas that Smith had worked up and presented to bassist Victor Wooten, who would then develop a groove. After establishing a rhythmic foundation, guitarist Scott Henderson would embellish with harmonic and melodic ideas. "Each tune took a day from conception to completion," Smith explains, "so it was a process of composing-rehearsal- performance that happened all in one day.

"It's a real natural chemistry," Smith adds. "We have a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, a lot of respect for each other. When we get into the process, we'll have disagreements, but everybody's good about it. We'll work it through until the music presents itself. Sometimes it's a bit of a challenge to get everybody's ideas heard, but it's usually pretty obvious which ideas are going to work."

"The main thing that I hear on both of these Vital Tech Tones records," says Wooten, "is that the three of us actually have a sound. When you put them on, it really sounds like a band. There's a definite chemistry there and it seems to have gone on to another level on this record. I think we were much more comfortable with each other, we knew more about what to expect."

- Adapted from the VTT2 liner notes by Bill Milkowski

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