THERE are two serendipitous moments in jazz legend Lonnie Liston Smith’s life.
The first was in high school in Richmond, Virginia. He was over at a friend’s place when their parents put on
Lonnie has music in his DNA. His father was a member of the world renowned Harmonizing Four gospel choir, and he played piano and horns throughout high school. He went on to study music at Morgan State University in Baltimore, but always had his sights on New York City.
He arrived in the early-1960, a time where jazz was absorbing global influences and artists like
“With Miles he was very candid all the time. He was very truthful – on the stage, off the stage. He just made you stronger.”
That’s when the second fateful moment happened: a chance meeting with avant garde saxophonist and Sun Ra acolyte John Gilmore at the original Birdland Jazz Club at 1678 Broadway. It was Lonnie’s first night in New York – he had literally just dropped his bags off at the hotel – and John gave him a book on spiritual enlightenment that influenced his work for years to come.
“He walked up to me and gave me a book and said, ‘This is what you’re looking for.’ It was a complete stranger and it turned out to be John Gilmore … That book was a great enlightenment. I just kept studying and doing research.”
Reducing Lonnie’s career to five records is an impossible task – he released 14 alone with his visionary jazz-funk outfit
He is a pioneering new age artist; a spiritual-jazz innovator (contributing ecstatic string piano to Pharoah Sanders’ cult classic Karma); and was involved in the early sessions for Miles Davis’ On The Corner, which polarised critics at the time, but laid the foundation for jazz-rock fusion (for better or worse).
Lonnie’s music reached new audiences when his meditative piano composition
It was during this visit that we spoke briefly to Lonnie about five touch points from a varied and celebrated career.
That was interesting because I had just met Pharoah. He was doing different things on the saxophone and Leon Thomas was yodelling. Pharaoh said he was getting ready to go into the studio with Bob Thiele, who had produced Coltrane and other great jazz artists. I said, “Ok.”
Actually if you get a chance, listen to Karma again. Because after we did the recording, Bob Thiele called me to come back into the studio. So there’s two complete piano parts on there – I overdubbed the other piano part because Bob wanted it to sound more fuller … I was doing strings inside the keyboard. You can run your hand across the strings and get a different sound.
Was there a lot of freedom in that session?
Oh yeah. That was the thing with Pharaoh and Leon. When we were all together it was always based on complete creativity … We’d start with something and then expand on that.
Is it true that was the first time you had played electric piano?
It was the very first time. There was a Fender Rhodes sitting in the corner. I had never seen one. I had been playing grand piano with all these groups. So I asked the engineer. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “That’s a Fender Rhodes electric piano.” So I walked over and started playing it and messing with the knobs. And this song just came out … Everybody ran over and said, “What is that? We have to recorded this right now.”
They asked me what I was going to call it [the song]. I was studying astral projections, where you go all over the world without leaving body. So I was all, “Well, it sounds like you’re floating in space so let’s call it, ‘Astral Traveling’.” The rest is history. ‘Astral Traveling’ when I analysed it afterwards, it’s a 12-bar blues … I just change the voicing but it’s still based around that 12-bar blues.
Are you still close with him [Pharoah]?
I haven’t seen him for a while because I’m on the east coast and he’s on the west coast. But I hope one day we can get together and do some more playing.
What were those sessions like? I remember reading that Miles was pretty direct towards you?
It wasn’t a negative. Miles was just a genius on stage and off stage, and you’ve probably noticed when you left Miles’ band you automatically formed your own group because he made you stronger. When we were doing the On The Corner session though, I didn’t realise there were three keyboards so I assumed I had to wait my turn. Herbie [Hancock] was there, and one other keyboardist [Harold Ivory Williams] was there. I didn’t realise that he wanted us to play at the same time because I had never played with other keyboardists before. So Miles walked up and said, “What the bleep are you standing there for?” So I sat down and you really gotta listen because it was three different keyboardists playing at the same time. We were trying to stay out of each other’s way. It worked. Miles was just something else.
Why do you think people who worked with Miles went on to form their own bands? What was it about him?
With Miles he was very candid all the time. He was very truthful – on the stage, off the stage. He just made you stronger. When I went to that first rehearsal I assumed I was going to play piano. So I’m looking everywhere for the Fender Rhodes and I’m like, “Miles, where’s the keyboard, the Fender Rhodes?” And he was like, “Oh, I’m tired of that.” He had Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul – they played that instrument. He wanted a different sound. The Japanese had just given him a Yamaha electric organ. I had never even seen it before and he said, “That’s what I want you to play.” I said, “Miles, I’ve never played that.” He said, “Marvellous. Let’s do it.” So I had to be creative. I was learning as I was recording … He wanted creativity every night. Most people don’t look at it like that. But Miles wanted it every night and it just made you stronger.
And I guess he did it by forcing you out of your comfort zone.
Oh, he loved that. He always wanted to get you out of your comfort zone because that’s how you discover things.
There’s a real Sly Stone influence on the first track
Oh my goodness. That’s why we called it jazz-fusion funk. You couldn’t get away from James Brown. With James Brown raining down that was it – your whole body gets excited. And then when Sly came along, he just amazed me. One of my favourites was ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Aagin)’ with Larry Graham. We all loved Sly and James Brown.
That’s the thing about jazz. Jazz has always been really conscious of what was happening at the time and absorbed everything around it.
Oh yeah. What we’d do is we’d take it and add the creativity and improvisation to it. Most of them were trying to play the same thing, but we [jazz musicians] would come in and hear what they’re doing, but start improvising and that’s what made them more creative.
That was a big turning point in your career, and I guess it introduced your music to a young audience.
That was amazing. I didn’t realise it was going to turn out to be that important. EMI called me and they said they were doing something with Guru – who I wasn’t familiar with – and they wanted to have a different jazz artist for each song. I said, “OK.” We did this record, Jazzmatazz, and it came out and MTV and all these people were like, “This is history – rap meets jazz.” I’ve been doing all kinds of interviews recently for the 25th anniversary of Jazzmatazz. It’s just amazing how everyone considers it to be a real classic.
That record really affirmed the strong connection between hip-hop and jazz.
Donald Byrd and I were on tour with Guru in Japan. We went to the jazz stores and the hip-hop artists were looking for jazz artists to sample, and the younger people were discovering jazz through those samples. It’s really amazing.
Have you come to love hip-hop over the years?
Oh man, I really love what Tupac did. Tupac was definitely for real. But of course it seems like everyone who is really creating for real, something always happens [tragically] – so what are you going to do?
What about Kendrick Lamar? He’s really played a big part in bringing jazz back to the fore.
I haven’t had a chance to meet him … I figure if he and I get together something really good can come out of that.
I was really surprised … Record companies always want you to do a hit record, so I said, “Well shoot, I am just going to go in and play something that’s just beautiful.” Everyone needs a garden of peace with all this chaos going on. You need to go into the garden, really get yourself together, and get a break from it. It was grand piano and I overdubbed electric piano – just putting those two sounds together. Then all of a sudden Jay Z used it and it spoke to a younger generation. I mean, they really loved it. To hear young people say it’s a beautiful song – that’s something.
Do you have a favourite song in which it’s been sampled?
When Mary J [Blige] came out with ‘Take Me As I Am’ I was really impressed with the orchestrations, the strings, the video – everything was just done very professionally. I sent an email to her representative, so I wasn’t sure if she read it, but I was really impressed with it. It was so professionally done.
That’s the beauty of it. Because back in the day everyone always took the broadway songs and changed it. So what they’re doing is taking our songs and other arrangements that play off each sample.
What’s your take on jazz today?
That’s interesting. My drummer and bass player, when we were driving from the airport in Melbourne, they were saying the younger generation today needs to listen more … Miles always use to say, “You gotta find your own sound, your own soul.” You gotta go inside and come up with your own sound, your own style, your own voice – anybody can copy. So we’ll see. Maybe the young ones will really come out and start doing something. We’ll find another ‘Trane [John Coltrane], or something.