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Issue 1101

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Lonnie Liston Smith: Peace, love and all that jazz

Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley
Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley Lonnie Liston Smith photo copyright: Simon Redley

Lonnie Liston Smith has just about done it all. He is a pioneer of jazz funk fusion, loved by the UK’s acid jazz scene of the 70s, and his music sampled by the likes of Jay Z and Mary J Blige in recent years.

Keyboard master Lonnie has earned Royal status during an amazing 40 year pedigree, playing with the greatest names in jazz and as a band leader in his own right.

He was a sideman with Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Pharoah Sanders among others, before forming Lonnie Liston Smith And The Cosmic Echoes, recording a number of albums widely regarded as classics in the fusion / Quiet Storm / smooth jazz and acid jazz genres.

At 73-years-old, he is still going strong and in great demand for live work around the world, due back to the UK in June for a handful of shows, before a spot at the Suncebeat Festival in Croatia. His classic Flying Dutchman albums have all been re-mastered, and so far this year the Bgp label (through Ace) has dropped two crackers; “Astral Travelling,” and “Cosmic Funk.”

Lonnie was born in Richmond, Virginia into a musical family. His father was a member of the Gospel Group, “The Harmonizing Four”. In 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt invited “The Harmonizing Four” to sing at the White House following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lonnie remembers such gospel groups as “The Dixie Humming Birds” and “The Soul Stirrers” with Sam Cooke, being frequent visitors at his family’s home. There was a piano in the house and he began investigating it before lessons a few years later. It was during high school that Lonnie became infatuated with modern Jazz, through hearing alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. It was not long before he was listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the great pianists Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Earl “Father” Hines, Errol Garner and others.

After graduating from High School, Lonnie entered University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he majored in music education and earned his degree. He began performing in the Baltimore area, where he backed vocalists such as Betty Carter. While attending University, he began performing with his peers, Gary Bartz (alto saxophonist), Graham Moncur (trombonist), and Mickey Bass (on upright bass). After college, Lonnie moved to New York and began performing with the top vocalists, such as Betty Carter and Joe Williams. Soon after, Lonnie joined Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers. After The Jazz Messengers, he got a call to perform with drummer, Max Roach - which was unusual because Max rarely used a pianist in his ensemble. He then enjoyed a two year stay with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, (then known as Roland Kirk), and recorded two records with him; “Please Don’t Cry Beautiful Edith” on Verve Records and “Here Comes the Whistleman” on Atlantic Records.

Lonnie’s next three jobs were perhaps the most important stepping stones in his career. He got the call from Pharoah Sanders in 1968. Pharaoh worked with John Coltrane until his death in 1967. Lonnie and Pharoah created spontaneously at every moment. Lonnie began to experiment with electric keyboards and created a rich “Cosmic Sound,” to support Pharoah’s impassioned tenor saxophone flights. Lonnie composed, “Astral Travelling”, which appeared on Pharoah’s “Thembi” CD. Lonnie’s compositions for Pharoah’s other CDs “Upper Egypt”, “Karma”, “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, “Summum, Bukmun, Umyun”, and “Jewels of Thought” were essential to the band’s sound. Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri heard Lonnie performing with Pharoah, and asked Lonnie to record with him on “The Third World”, “El Pampero”, “Bolivia”, “Fenix” and also “Under Fire”. Also on these same albums were such major players as Ron Carter, Bernard Purdie, Stanley Clarke, Airto, John Abercombie and Nana Vasconcelos.

In 1973, Lonnie received the important call to join the Miles Davis ensemble. Lonnie recorded two albums with Miles, “On The Corner” and “Big Fun.” In 1974, Producer, Bob Thiele, signed Lonnie to a solo recording contract for his label Flying Dutchman. “Astral Travelling” and “Cosmic Funk” were Lonnie’s first two albums. However, it was his album, “Expansions” that broke Lonnie into the major leagues in 1974. He recorded several more albums in this vein, including “Visions of a New World” and “Renaissance,” before he was approached by CBS. Lonnie cut “Loveland”, “Exotic Mysteries”, “Song for the Children” and “Love Is The Answer,” for CBS. Some years later, Lonnie renewed his association with Bob Thiele, and cut well received albums, “Silhouettes”, “Rejuvenation”, and “Dreams of Tomorrow”. Also, during this time period, Lonnie discovered a young, 16 year old bassist, Marcus Miller. Lonnie also appeared on the Jazz Explosion All Star Tours with Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Angela Bofil, Stanley Clarke, Gato Barbieri, Tom Brown, Wayne Henderson, Jon Lucien and Ronnie Laws. In the 90’s, Lonnie got involved with “Guru Jazzmataz Volume One,” and was discovered by an all new young audience. Mary J. Blige sampled Lonnie’s composition “A Garden of Peace” in her Grammy winning single, “Take Me As I Am” and Jay -Z also sampled, “A Garden of Peace” in his hit, “Dead Presidents.”
I was invited to meet with Lonnie in his London hotel suite, when he was here for five sold out nights at Ronnie Scotts. I spent a fascinating time hearing about his amazing career, and took a wander round the local streets, to grab some exclusive photographs. I was eager to hear his stories of Miles Davies, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First; we explore the label “legend,” and how that sits with him. “I think I looked it up one time to figure out exactly what it means. It doesn’t mean I’m old does it? I’m happy with it, but I was always just so deep into the music. “I was always just into the music, I have been blessed. I was so deep in to the music, I didn’t think of all the things that would happen over the next 40 years. But it makes you feel good. I love to come to London and to England where the people love all the songs I have written.

“I always wanted the music to sound as if I had just written it yesterday, so I always wanted a universal sound and an eternal sound with the music. It seems like I did it. People are still discovering Expansions and Garden Of Peace even today. When I first came here in the 70s and saw that all you guys were picking up on my music, and I had crossed over from jazz to the jazz funk scene, it moved me to tears. Hey, it’s a really great, wonderful feeling. You can tell how sincere they are here; I’ve met the whole family, grandmother, the daughter, the grandchildren and they say, ‘I was raised on Expansions.’ This unbelievable, and it makes me feel great. I never get tired of playing Expansions, especially now I have a new young band, and all my music is being refreshed. It’s getting better. I owe a lot to that song, I really do.” We discuss how Lonnie sees himself as a musician. “Burning serious and dedicated to the music. I had the opportunity to play with the giants; Max Roach, Miles Davis and I met all of them, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane…. So I don’t want to let them down. As a person, I am always seeking wisdom, knowledge and understanding. That’s why I wrote ‘Expansions’; expand your mind, search for the truth. I am always trying to do that.” Lonnie speaks of his life-long study of mystical issues, spirituality and astral travelling, and converting to Judaism in 1998.

So, working with Miles Davis on the albums “On The Corner” and “Big Fun.” What are his most vivid memories? “We were on tour and I did not know him as well as the rest of guys. We did a show the night before and the next day I get on the elevator and Miles is on the elevator too. I say good morning Miles, and he asks me, ‘Are you a musician?’ I just froze and thought this man hired me, my mind is asking what does he mean? I said yeah, and he said well I am not talking to musicians today. Miles was being serious too. He called rehearsals when he was living in Brownstone, New York. I knock on the door and Miles opened the door, said ‘Ain’t nobody home,' and slammed the door.’ I said what in the…..the other guys opened the door and said all that means is, Miles woke up this morning and decided, ‘I don’t feel like rehearsing.’ And he just didn’t. We rehearsed without him. That was the thing, you just get used to that, he was candid onstage and off stage, and if he didn’t feel like doing something, he didn’t do it. I remember sitting there at the piano waiting for my turn to play and he came over, and used that colourful ‘French’ language (!), and asked me why I was not playing. There were 3 pianos in the band then, and I said I was waiting for my turn. He made it clear he wanted us all to play at the same time. I didn’t know that.”

“The main thing was that everyone who left Miles Davis group formed their own band, so by being around Miles you had to be yourself, and you had to be strong. Miles wasn’t negative, it was just he was going to do what he wanted to do, and you had to be strong to be able to deal with Miles. It made you stronger, so you were ready when you left Miles. Everybody you are listening to today came out of Miles.”

When recording the seminal album "Thembi," with Pharoah Sanders, Lonnie discovered the joys of the electric piano, and his signature sound ever since. “With Pharoah we were always experimenting and stretching out. It was all about creativity, just keep going, but always bring it back and don’t leave it in space… bring it back to some kind of rhythm. We were in California at the studio and I didn’t have anything to do. I asked what is that in the corner. The engineer said that’s a Fender Rhodes electric piano, so I walked over, messed with the knobs to get a different sound, and this song just came out. Everyone ran over and said what you doing. I said I am just writing this song, and Pharoah said we gotta record that right now. I had been studying Astral projection so I thought let’s call it Astral Travelling. It turned out a 12 bar blues, and I call it my 12 bar cosmic 21st century blues. John Coltrane, Miles, we all started out in those rhythm and blues bands.”

On Art Blakey: “That was a good learning experience, because Art didn’t write any music so everyone in the band had to bring in songs. Art said don’t call me until you all got it all together. After we had nailed each person’s song, Art would come in and play the drums. He could just start playing as if he wrote the song, and put that Art Blakey thing, that Art Blakely magic on it.” Lonnie also spent a year with drummer Max Roache, but did not get to record with him. When he went to high school and college, he sang bass in the choir and wanted to be in the band. But they only needed tuba players, so he played tuba in the marching band in high school and college. He recalls the mind boggling experience of working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and watching him play three horns at the same time, and three part harmonies. Lonnie was trying to get more sound out of the piano when he was with Pharaoh, so he used his elbows as well as his hands, but always aiming to still make it musical. Lonnie made some of his first recordings with Rahsaan, "Please Don’t Cry Beautiful Edith," and "Here Comes The Whistle Man.”

He hung out with Thelonius Monk, met Duke Ellington and got to sit in with John Coltrane at The Vanguard the once, which is how he met Pharo sanders who played with Coltrane. “Trane was so generous. He’d let you come up and sit in. He was just really dedicated. He’d have a driver drive him to the shows and he’d be in the back of the car, playing.”

He recalls being summoned to RCA’s New York offices one day, when his third album Expansions had been released. “They said you better get down here. When I got there, they said man you are in the charts. You got to get a manager; this record is really taking off. They had to manufacture all these new records for the demand.” It was the first jazz record to cross over to the R&B and main billboard chart as well as the jazz chart. Lonnie loves the UK, and speaks about the times he has been over out of his own pocket, just to hang out with his fans. “When I got to London for the first time, they said you are the Godfather of jazz fusion funk. All that was really exciting. “Over here, these people are really serious about the music. They read all the liner notes, all the books they can find, and I love that. I used to come over here and just hang and pay for it myself. I come over here and discover musicians I would never hear in America, but who are from America.” He won many new friends when his band wowed the Jazz World Stage at the Glastonbury Festival in 2009.

• Lonnie Liston Smith and The Cosmic Echoes summer 2014 shows are: June 26th, Newcastle, June 27th Nottingham, June 28th Jazz Cafe London, June 29th Donegal Ireland, July 24th Kent, July 25th Manchester Jazz Festival and July 26th Suncebeat Festival Croatia.


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