It's been suggested that if anyone bridged the gap between John Coltrane and Earth, Wind & Fire, it was keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith. Born December 28th, 1940 in Richmond, Virg., he began his jazz career playing acoustic piano as a sideman with such luminaries as Pharoah Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Betty Carter and Gato Barbieri. A stint with Miles Davis in the early '70s influenced Smith to switch from acoustic to fusion, a career change that has since defined him. In 1973, armed with the knowledge and new visions he had been exposed to playing with Miles, Smith formed his own fusion band, the Cosmic Echoes, and released the acclaimed Astral Traveling. During the next 17 years he released a number of albums in the fusion/funk/R&B groove and even had a minor hit with "Never Too Late . Smith has also revisited acoustic jazz briefly such as on the album Make Someone Happy
(1986), which consisted of post-bop and standards.
Smith's last album as a leader was Transformation
, released in 1998. And although his recording output has slowed down in recent years, he is still writing and touring the world. Surprisingly, he has not played the New York area for quite awhile and will make up for lost time by doing two shows on August 11th: an afternoon gig at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Rhythm and Blues Festival at Metrotech Center with Eliane Elias and the other show that evening at Joe's Pub.
"I just got back from the St. Kitts Music Festival. We go to Europe on the 25th of July, then we get back around August 3rd, Smith said during a recent phone interview from his home in Virginia. Smith is bemused when the long gap between New York gigs is brought up. "It's amazing. I remember back in the day we used to do Carnegie Hall [and] pack it twice a year. And we did all the clubs: the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, the whole bit. But I guess it was just circumstance 'cause I've been doing things other places in America.
When asked to judge the bromide about the jazz audiences overseas being more receptive than the crowds in the States, Smith agreed grudgingly. "I guess so, because I think they take it more seriously. People in the States are so used to it, maybe they take it for granted. You go to Europe and Japan, they only see you maybe once a year. So they definitely turn out.
One of the primary factors in Smith's decreased record output is the uncertain nature of the business. "Material [is] no problem because I'm always writing songs, Smith said. "I guess it's just [finding] the right deal. When you first start recording you're not aware of the business of music because you're so involved with the art of music. And then, all of a sudden, after so many years, you find out what the word 'master' means. Usually the artist writes all of the songs, does a lot of the production and everything, but [whoever] owns the masters has the power. Then after all [those] years you find that out and you say 'Oh no!' Then you try to look for the right recording deal. That's one thing about the music industry. You could have the greatest record or CD on the planet Earth, but if the rest of the world doesn't get an opportunity to hear it, then it's lost. Distribution is so essential. I said 'Well, here's another learning experience!'
Playing with Miles Davis was not only a learning experience, it was a life-changing one which Smith heartily embraces. "Playing with Miles was the icing on the cake, Smith said effusively. "A lot of people got upset at Miles when he did Bitches Brew
, but people don't realize what [he] contributed to the music. When I worked with Miles he had the wah-wah [pedal] and all this stuff hooked up to his trumpet. I came under Miles' fusion period, and the same things that he hooked up to his trumpet I hooked up to my Fender Rhodes electric piano and came up with a whole 'nother sound, what people call the Lonnie Liston Smith sound.
"I was working with Miles when [producer] Bob Thiele called me and said 'Lonnie, everybody's talking about you all over the world, so it's time for you to do your own record.' I flew back from California and we did Astral Traveling
. I wrote that song for Pharoah and it was on his album Thembi
. People should really go out and buy that record because that was the first time that I ever touched the Fender Rhodes piano. We were in a studio in California doing Thembi and all of the other musicians had set up their instruments and I saw this instrument in the corner. Before then, all I'd ever played was acoustic piano. I asked the engineer 'What is that?' He said 'Man, that's a Fender Rhodes piano.' So I walked over and started messing with the knobs and everything and I just started playing this song. And Pharoah ran over and said 'Man, what are you doin'?' I don't know, I'm just kinda writin' this song. He said "Man, whatever that is, we gotta do it!' I said 'Well, I'm gonna call it 'Astral Traveling'.
For Smith, the move to fusion from acoustic jazz wasn't commercially motivated. "It was just a natural outgrowth of what I had been doing, he explained. "What happened was, I was listening to everything and fusion was really starting to take off, everyone was doing it. That was the first time I started writing lyrics, too and I was always studying Eastern philosophy, so I said let me put some very positive universal lyrics over some contemporary rhythms, but at the same time keep improvisation. That's the main thing about jazz, anyway. See, I had real jazz musicians playing [in Cosmic Echoes and we] all came out of straight ahead jazz.
The Lonnie Liston Smith sound was also one of the catalysts of acid jazz and he guest-starred on Guru's classic Jazzmatazz, Volume 1
. "I [got] this call from Chrysalis Records telling me they're doing Jazzmatazz. I think Donald Byrd had already done a cut and Roy [Ayers] had done a cut. So I said 'Well, okay, I'm not doing anything.' And the economics were right, so I said 'Oh yeah, that'll work.' But man, the thing that blew me away [was that] when we did it, MTV went crazy! They said 'jazz meets rap!' Now you know MTV, they don't get too involved in jazz. Man, they called us, the phone [was] jumping off the hook, they did all kinds of documentaries, I mean, this thing [was] splashed all over the world on MTV. So I guess we were the first to do that. Donald Byrd and I went on a tour with Guru overseas in Japan and...then [these] young kids [would] walk up to [me] and say 'Hey man, I just discovered you. We heard you with Guru.'
Despite being in his mid 60s, Lonnie Liston Smith still looks forward to new challenges and opportunities every day with an enthusiasm that many younger men would envy. "I discovered Marcus Miller when he was about 16 years old and he turned out to be a fantastic musician and producer. So I'm hoping that in the future maybe we can get together and he can produce something again. And I would hope that Pharoah Sanders and I can...do a major tour. A lot of the world didn't get an opportunity to catch us when we were together. It's like I'm starting all over again, that's the way I look at it, because I've become interested is so many different things lately and it's great. Recommended Listening:
· Pharoah Sanders - Karma (Impulse!, 1969)
· Pharoah Sanders - Thembi (Impulse!, 1970)
· Pharoah Sanders - Summun Bakmun Umyum (Deaf Dumb Blind) (Impulse!, 1970)
· Gato Barbieri - Fenix (Philips-RCA, 1971)
· Lonnie Liston Smith's Cosmic Echoes - Astral Traveling (Flying Dutchman-RCA Bluebird, 1973)
· Lonnie Liston Smith - Live! (RCA, 1977)