Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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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 UKâs 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; âAstral Travelling,â and âCosmic Funk.â

Lonnie was born in Richmond, Virginia into a musical family. His father was a member of the Gospel Group, âThe Harmonizing Fourâ. In 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt invited âThe Harmonizing Fourâ to sing at the White House following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lonnie remembers such gospel groups as âThe Dixie Humming Birdsâ and âThe Soul Stirrersâ with Sam Cooke, being frequent visitors at his familyâs 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 âFatherâ 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; âPlease Donât Cry Beautiful Edithâ on Verve Records and âHere Comes the Whistlemanâ on Atlantic Records.

Lonnieâs 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 âCosmic Sound,â to support Pharoahâs impassioned tenor saxophone flights. Lonnie composed, âAstral Travellingâ, which appeared on Pharoahâs âThembiâ CD. Lonnieâs compositions for Pharoahâs other CDs âUpper Egyptâ, âKarmaâ, âThe Creator Has a Master Planâ, âSummum, Bukmun, Umyunâ, and âJewels of Thoughtâ were essential to the bandâs sound. Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri heard Lonnie performing with Pharoah, and asked Lonnie to record with him on âThe Third Worldâ, âEl Pamperoâ, âBoliviaâ, âFenixâ and also âUnder Fireâ. 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, âOn The Cornerâ and âBig Fun.â In 1974, Producer, Bob Thiele, signed Lonnie to a solo recording contract for his label Flying Dutchman. âAstral Travellingâ and âCosmic Funkâ were Lonnieâs first two albums. However, it was his album, âExpansionsâ that broke Lonnie into the major leagues in 1974. He recorded several more albums in this vein, including âVisions of a New Worldâ and âRenaissance,â before he was approached by CBS. Lonnie cut âLovelandâ, âExotic Mysteriesâ, âSong for the Childrenâ and âLove Is The Answer,â for CBS. Some years later, Lonnie renewed his association with Bob Thiele, and cut well received albums, âSilhouettesâ, âRejuvenationâ, and âDreams of Tomorrowâ. 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 90âs, Lonnie got involved with âGuru Jazzmataz Volume One,â and was discovered by an all new young audience. Mary J. Blige sampled Lonnieâs composition âA Garden of Peaceâ in her Grammy winning single, âTake Me As I Amâ and Jay -Z also sampled, âA Garden of Peaceâ in his hit, âDead Presidents.â
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 weâll get to that in a minute. First; we explore the label âlegend,â and how that sits with him. âI think I looked it up one time to figure out exactly what it means. It doesnât mean Iâm old does it? Iâm happy with it, but I was always just so deep into the music. âI was always just into the music, I have been blessed. I was so deep in to the music, I didnât 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.

âI 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, itâs a really great, wonderful feeling. You can tell how sincere they are here; Iâve met the whole family, grandmother, the daughter, the grandchildren and they say, âI was raised on Expansions.â 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. Itâs getting better. I owe a lot to that song, I really do.â We discuss how Lonnie sees himself as a musician. âBurning 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 Coltraneâ¦. So I donât want to let them down. As a person, I am always seeking wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Thatâs why I wrote âExpansionsâ; expand your mind, search for the truth. I am always trying to do that.â 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 âOn The Cornerâ and âBig Fun.â What are his most vivid memories? âWe 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, âAre you a musician?â 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 âAinât nobody home,' and slammed the door.â I said what in theâ¦..the other guys opened the door and said all that means is, Miles woke up this morning and decided, âI donât feel like rehearsing.â And he just didnât. We rehearsed without him. That was the thing, you just get used to that, he was candid onstage and off stage, and if he didnât feel like doing something, he didnât do it. I remember sitting there at the piano waiting for my turn to play and he came over, and used that colourful âFrenchâ 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 didnât know that.â

âThe 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 wasnât 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.â

When recording the seminal album "Thembi," with Pharoah Sanders, Lonnie discovered the joys of the electric piano, and his signature sound ever since. âWith Pharoah we were always experimenting and stretching out. It was all about creativity, just keep going, but always bring it back and donât leave it in space⦠bring it back to some kind of rhythm. We were in California at the studio and I didnât have anything to do. I asked what is that in the corner. The engineer said thatâs 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 letâs 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.â

On Art Blakey: âThat was a good learning experience, because Art didnât write any music so everyone in the band had to bring in songs. Art said donât call me until you all got it all together. After we had nailed each personâs 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.â 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 Donât Cry Beautiful Edith," and "Here Comes The Whistle Man.â

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. âTrane was so generous. Heâd let you come up and sit in. He was just really dedicated. Heâd have a driver drive him to the shows and heâd be in the back of the car, playing.â

He recalls being summoned to RCAâs New York offices one day, when his third album Expansions had been released. âThey 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.â 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. âWhen I got to London for the first time, they said you are the Godfather of jazz fusion funk. All that was really exciting. âOver 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.â 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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