Steve Smith

Steve Smith on Narada Michael Walden

by Ilya Stemkovsky

Modern Drummer recently popped in on Vital Information drummer and 2013 Pro Panelist Steve Smith to chat about one of his favorite albums, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond. The 1975 LP was the sophomore outing by Mahavishnu’s second lineup, which included drummer Billy Cobham’s replacement, Narada Michael Walden. Guitarist John McLaughlin’s extraordinary fusion group had catapulted Cobham to international fame, ensuring that Billy’s name and the very concept of fusion drumming were nearly synonymous among the genre’s many fans. Yet Smith finds Walden’s work with the group just as stimulating. We asked him why.

MD: What were your feelings about the lineup change in the band? Billy Cobham left some big shoes to fill.

Steve: I’d heard about this new drummer in Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I bought [the second lineup’s debut] Apocalypse and liked it, but it didn’t really thrill me the way those two first albums with Billy Cobham did. Narada Michael Walden’s playing, good as it was, wasn’t very prominent in the mix, and the overall conception on Apocalypse wasn’t to feature the virtuosity of the players as much as the writing and orchestrating.

With Visions of the Emerald Beyond, from the get-go, “Eternity’s Breath, Part 1,” the opening fanfare that Narada plays is intense! Great playing, but also full of amazing concepts. What he plays, the way he plays it, and the fact that he’s so loud in the mix with a huge drum sound that’s right in your face and you can hear him go around the toms in the stereo spectrum the way it’s panned—it’s fantastic.

I listened to that first track over and over again, analyzing what he did. He took a lot of the stuff Cobham did, but he had his own innovations and way of playing fusion. He applied the double bass drums to his own stickings, so there were new hand-and-foot combinations that I hadn’t heard before. He appealed to me because of the depth of his groove and the big sound that he got in the recording studio.

MD: Visions is more produced than the earlier stuff.

Narada Michael WaldonSteve: Engineer and producer Ken Scott did an incredible job; Narada sounds bigger than life. On the track “If I Could See,” the drums were recorded at a faster tempo, and when the tape is slowed down to 30 ips, they sound super deep and heavy. Scott recorded the band’s second album, Birds of Fire, and then went on to do Visions.

MD: So many great tracks on Visions, and such a thick pill!

Steve: On “Lila’s Dance,” Narada plays the shuffle groove in 10/8 that Billy played on “The Dance of Maya” from The Inner Mounting Flame, but he plays it with such a deep pocket and so much attitude. And “Can’t Stand Your Funk” is a tune in 5/4 with a wickedly funky beat played with a lot of intensity.

Narada’s a powerhouse. Traditional grip! This really appealed to me at that time because I was just discovering playing with that big sound and deep groove. “Cosmic Strut” has a section in 9/4—4 plus 5—with McLaughlin’s solo 7-7-7-6, which equals 27. It’s the first time we hear one of Narada’s tunes and his aspirations to be a writer and artist.

“Be Happy” goes into a burning 7/4 where Narada turns the beat around like a rock/fusion James Brown drummer—very innovative and unique, with more use of the double bass drums in the groove. Cobham would use double bass and keep them going and lift the energy, but Narada used double bass as part of the drumbeat itself. The energy is off the hook! And “On the Way Home to Earth” has McLaughlin with the ring modulator in a duet with Narada, then bassist Ralphe Armstrong enters and they take off in full fusion flight.

MD: What other effect did the album have on you?

Steve: It’s had such a great impact—and not just at the time, but later and through the years, because I started to play with two of the main players from Visions, Jean-Luc Ponty and Ralphe Armstrong. Armstrong had grown up playing with Narada in Detroit and would constantly reference him and give me a hard time when I didn’t play something he approved of. [laughs] Of course this made me listen to Narada even more.

When I joined Journey, I started to see that some of what Narada did would work in that rock setting. I copied the patterns and phrasing and used those on many recordings. You can really hear his influence on Journey’s “Mother, Father.” That’s why Narada was able to play with Tommy Bolin, Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, Weather Report, and many others. He was deeply funky yet was as powerful as a rock drummer—close to Buddy Miles, Greg Errico, and Mitch Mitchell, but informed by Cobham as well. He had great rudimental chops with clean double strokes.

Also, the kinds of fills between the hands and feet that people call “quads” now—Narada was the first person I heard play those. Ginger Baker played some things like that, but Narada did it in a different way. Vinnie Colaiuta and I would study Visions together at Berklee and cop Narada’s licks. I used to listen to the album first on vinyl and then later on cassette with my Sony Walkman.

I even loved the name Visions of the Emerald Beyond and the album artwork. I’ve gotten to know Narada very well over the years, because we both lived in San Francisco for a long time. When I moved there in 1978, I actually took some lessons from him. Later we became friends and played in a double-drummer band together called Been There Done That.