In the pantheon of 1970s jazz electric pianists, Lonnie Liston Smith sits just below Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea. The series of albums he did fronting his group, the Cosmic Echoes, gained considerable popularity at the time, and his spacey, economical style was an immediate antecedent to the “quiet storm” and “smooth jazz” radio formats that cropped up in the 1980s and ‘90s.
But Smith already had a lengthy resume before launching his career as a bandleader in 1973.
“A lot of people have forgotten,” he told me recently, “that before I did Expansions, I was working with Art Blakey, Max Roach, all straightahead piano.”
In fact, he discovered the instrument that would become his trademark during a 1970 recording session with Pharoah Sanders that resulted in the Thembi album.
“I’m gonna tell you something historical,” he said when I mentioned that purchasing that record was when I first heard him. “On Thembi, that was the first time that I ever touched a Fender Rhodes electric piano. We got to the studio in California—Cecil McBee had to unpack his bass, the drummer had to set up his drums, Pharoah had to unpack all of his horns. Everybody had something to do, but the piano was just sitting there waiting.
“I saw this instrument sitting in the corner and I asked the engineer, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s a Fender Rhodes electric piano.’ I didn’t have anything to do, so I started messing with it, checking some of the buttons to see what I could do with different sounds. All of a sudden I started writing a song and everybody ran over and said, ‘What is that?’
“And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just messing around.’ Pharoah said, ‘Man, we gotta record that. Whatcha gonna call it?’
“I’d been studying astral projections and it sounded like we were floating through space so I said let’s call it ‘Astral Traveling.’ That’s how I got introduced to the electric piano.”
Smith, who’s coming down from his hometown of Richmond Friday night to play with Jae Sinnett and Friends at the Attucks Theatre, had been introduced to music at an early age.
“My father was one of the original members of the Harmonizing Four gospel group,” he said. “So there was music all the time. We’d come home and the Dixie Hummingbirds might be there; I met Sam Cooke when he was with the Soul Stirrers. They used to do all-star gospel shows. Every year they had a thing at the Mosque Theatre.
“My father got a piano and whoever showed interest, we would start taking lessons, and one thing led to another.”
For Lonnie Liston Smith, what it led to was a lifetime spent playing with some of the giants of jazz. Besides Sanders, Smith worked with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Betty Carter, Gato Barbieri and Miles Davis.
“When I got with Miles,” he remembered, “he blew my mind. Miles paid you a whole lot of money to create. Today, if you get too creative, people get mad at you. But Miles—if you didn’t come up with something new all the time, Miles would get a terrible attitude. You don’t know how fortunate you are to work in a situation like that.”
The late ‘60s and early-to-mid ‘70s were halcyon days in music. Record companies hadn’t yet become big business run by numbers crunchers, and the music itself was treated more as art than as product. Smith reveled in the creative freedom.
“At that time,” he recalled, “I was wondering how I could come up with different sounds. Playing inside the strings [of the piano] was part of it. But I was listening to Pharoah and he was playing more than one note. I said to him, ‘A horn can’t play more than one note; how do you do that?’ And Leon Thomas was yodeling, so I had to do something different!
“We had so much freedom, but now all that freedom is being taken away when you record. I wish we could figure out what was going on then; everybody was creating. We would go in the studio and we could do a record in one day, and it would come out perfect. There were no stipulations, there were no regulations; the thing was you had to be creative. That’s what makes music worthwhile!”
His Cosmic Echoes days came as the music industry was transitioning away from that creative freedom and into a more sales-driven corporate mindset. But Smith was able to find and express his own distinct voice.
“When I did Expansions, it took the whole world by storm. When they heard it in London, they said, ‘Lonnie Liston Smith is the godfather of jazz-fusion-funk.’ Everyone on that record came from a strictly jazz background. People thought it was a Fender bass, but it was Cecil McBee playing upright bass. And we still got exactly what the kids were looking for!
“I think later on, when the music business really started changing, you’d start trying to please the music business. I guess that’s something you have to go through.”
Smith’s music has always had a deeply spiritual vibe to it.
“I used to go into this bookstore in New York,” he said, “and they had all these books on the spirituality of music, the cosmicness of music. There’d be Sun Ra sitting there reading, John Coltrane. That’s what I wanted to put into the music; I wanted to entertain you, but I wanted to entertain the spiritual side that’s inside all of us because that is the real you.
“People would say it was a ‘quiet storm,’ but in that quiet storm there’s the same energy as in the wild storm. So that’s the way I decided to approach it, to be the quiet storm and be very subtle. I’m not going to play a hundred thousand notes at one time.
“Music has this magical power. I wanted each person in the audience to get from the music exactly what they needed to enhance their life.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.