The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (2022)

As both a bandleader and sideman, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith helped define the genre-bending sounds of American jazz fusion in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “It almost seems strange to be talking about jazz musicians having hit records,” Baltimore Afro-American critic Frederick I. Douglass wrote in 1976. “But it is happening to people like Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Smith and a few others…. The truth of the matter is that Smith has discovered a musical formula that transcends all so-called musical categories.”

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1940, Smith began playing piano with the Baltimore Metropolitan Opera while just a teenager. By the early-’60s, Smith was accompanying the likes of Betty Carter, Roland Kirk, and Art Blakey. As the decade progressed, Smith’s playing could be heard on legendary albums like Pharoah Sanders’s Karma, Leon Thomas’s Spirits Known and Unknown, and Gato Barbieri’s Fénix, among others. Early the next decade, Smith joined Miles Davis’s band for On The Corner (1973) and Big Fun (1974).

The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (1)But Smith’s greatest achievements came as a solo artist. Beginning with 1973’s Astral Traveling and continuing through 1977’s Live!, Smith’s albums with legendary producer Bob Thiele for RCA/Flying Dutchman created an essential “spiritual jazz” discography. His 1974 album, Expansions, with his backing band, The Cosmic Echoes, seemed to set the standard for the sub-genre. “Music is one of the ruling forces in the cosmos,” he told interviewer Mel Tapley in 1977, “and I constantly stretch for the ultimate.”

In the late-’70s, Smith switched labels to Columbia/Sony and brought a then-virtually unknown 16-year-old bassist Marcus Miller into his band. These albums, stretching into the early-’80s, saw Smith’s jazz blending with “quiet storm” smooth jazz/R&B and even flirting with disco. At the same time, the seemingly endless supply of hooks to be found in Smith’s solo records provided the building blocks for the DJs who were creating modern hip-hop. As Nate Patrin writes in Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop, “Keyboardist LonnieListon Smith, trumpeter Donald Byrd, and vibraphonist Roy Ayers werethree of the leading lightsin both those eras, with indelible R&B crossover classics that eventually made their way into DJ crates from the Bronx.”

It was my pleasure spend almost an hour on the phone with Smith last week. Undoubtedly deserving of a comprehensive book-length biography, Smith has recounted pieces of his life and career in insightful interviews with The Foundation, Only Good Vibes Music, Red Bull Music Academy, Artform Radio, Blues & Soul, RedFM, Soul, Jazz, & Funk, and Soul Survivors. For our conversation, I tried to zero in on Smith’s solo career and cover ground that Smith hadn’t discussed often in previous interviews.

JM: I’m curious about how both Pharoah Sanders’s work and your solo albums from the early-to-mid ‘70s often get called “spiritual jazz.” What are your thoughts on that? That label is obviously something that critics used after the fact. Do you think that’s a good label? How did you think about the music at the time? Obviously, both Karma and your albums are very spiritual, and they talk not necessarily about one specific religion but bring in a lot of different spiritual thoughts and strands from all over the world.

LLS: Right. Well, Josh, that was it. Because at that time, we were all studying — even Trane [John Coltrane]. There was a bookstore in New York called Weisner’s, and you might walk into the bookstore and there’d be Trane getting books. They had all kinds of books on world philosophy and religion. So, at that time, I was doing all this studying. It seemed like all religions and philosophy are basically saying the same thing. You might call the creator of the universe a different name. You know, some people say “Yahweh.” Some people say “Allah.” Some people say “Jehovah.” Some people say “Hashem.” Some people say “Adoni.” But it’s all oneness. And we were definitely trying to express that oneness through the music. Plus, you know, my background: My father was a member of The Harmonizing Four gospel group.

JM: They played at FDR’s funeral, right?

LLS: Oh, yeah. That’s what I’m saying. So, when I was a kid, I’d go to their gospel shows here in Richmond at the Mosque [Theater]. The Dixie Hummingbirds would come in. The Soul Stirrers would come in. The Blind Boys [of Alabama would come in]. So I was around all this growing up. And so that’s what I meant by “expansions” [the title of Smith’s 1974 album, arguably his most famous and critically lauded]. I just expanded on that and took it out into the world and the universe and tried to make people aware that we need to all work in harmony. If we don’t, we’ll be destroying the planet and each other. Well, you can see the war still going on. So we were just trying to use music as that particular vehicle to expand humanity’s consciousness.

JM: Can I can I ask you a question related to politics and growing up in Virginia? Because, you know, my PhD is in American History, and I’ve read a lot about Civil Rights and Black Power during that time period. Growing up in Richmond, obviously, this is the Jim Crow era, where it’s the “Solid South” of Democrats who are segregationist. But, as you know, FDR’s administration was the moment when African Americans first start switching from Republicans to Democrats. So I was wondering what your experience was of that, particularly with The Harmonizing Four singing at FDR’s funeral. Do you remember talking about the politics of the era with your dad?

LLS: No, Josh, that was a whole thing. Maybe it was a blessing because it was just music 24/7. You know, we were around all this music all the time and all these very talented musicians —even Rosetta Tharpe. I mean, she was crazy about The Harmonizing Four. She really liked my father and said he was a gentleman. She fell in love with The Harmonizing Four and my father, because, you know, she’d been around these crazy people, but my father was a gentleman. She moved to Richmond, Virginia. And then they played in a big wedding up there in D.C. So, I was just surrounded with music. I didn’t even have to deal with politics when I was growing up. Of course, when you leave home and hit Baltimore and New York, then you start dealing with it. But I was always just concentrating on music. And that was it. Maybe that was a blessing, because all I wanted to do is concentrate on music. Later on in life, the outside world and reality you had to start dealing with.

JM: Did you see a connection between this kind of spiritual jazz stuff that you were doing — both playing with other folks and your own albums — and the Black Power politics that was going on in the late-’60s and early-’70s? I know in one interview, Sanders kind of said, “Well, I let the music speak for itself,” but then you had Amiri Baraka and a lot of other people who were involved in politics writing a ton about spiritual jazz and its connection to black politics in that time period.

The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (2)LLS: Yeah, well, you’re right. Because, you know, they all — Amiri and all of them — used to come to our concerts. You know when people talk about rap? Shoot, we would be on the same bill with The Last Poets.... It’s a shame that people feel that they gotta keep certain people or certain races [down] and treat them very badly or things like that. You just said, “That’s crazy. Why are you thinking this way?” The main thing was, you want the music to try to elevate their consciousness to where they would realize that we are all equal and we all have to live in harmony. That was that was the main thing we were concentrating on from the musical [perspective]. Because, you know, you were aware of Malcolm [X] and everyone. And you’d say, “Okay, let me see if this music can [reach people].” Because music can heal you! Music is powerful! I mean, we used to listen to Trane and — oh, man! — you’d be, I guess for lack of a better word, it’d be like heaven. We were trying to do that same thing with what we were doing. Because Malcolm and everyone else, they were taking care of the political part of it. So okay, we’ll concentrate on, you know, like you said, what they called “spiritual music.” It’s the same thing [as when] I grew up in a gospel church with my father’s gospel music. Then I said, “Okay, let me expand this whole concept into a whole universal concept.” [For example] I put every religious symbol in the world on that album, [1977’s] Renaissance, when you open the cover up.

JM: Well, I was gonna say that I think the other interpretation when people say “spiritual jazz” is the history of black spirituals. In that connotation of the term, “spiritual” not just religious spirituality, but spiritual as in a genre of music. I think you can also see the connection there, where even if it’s not overtly political, it has that, as you said, that message of unity and compassion embedded in it.

LLS: Oh, yeah! That’s what I’m saying. It was in there. Because I was studying all kinds of religion. You meet people from all different religions. I remember when I first came to New York, I met John Gilmore [the jazz saxophonist best known for his work with Sun Ra]. I didn’t know who he was. He just walked up to me and said, “Hey, you’re gonna like this book.” It was a book about Sufism and about music and sound. So were studying it all. I guess, like they say, on the inside of every person... you have this this inner being. But then some people want to just take over and say, “Everything belongs to me” or “I’m the only one who counts.” But you can’t you can’t do that, because that’s gonna cause more wars and more destruction and things like that. So we were just trying to bring some peace and harmony.

JM: Yeah, absolutely. So building on that, I’d like to ask you about your solo albums in the ‘70s. First, all of your initial run of albums — really up until you started working with Marcus Miller — are full of songs that you composed. I think there’s a couple tracks on Cosmic Funk that or are written by other people, but on almost all of those albums from that time period, you wrote all of the songs. It was a super-creative period for you. You put out five albums in three years. What was your songwriting process like? How were so productive and creative? What was your inspiration?

The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (3)LLS: That was from studying. Even when I first came up with was the title of The Cosmic Echoes, I was reading about all the sounds in the universe. It was saying that, if you’re really in tune, when you hear a sound, you can see colors, and when you see colors you can hear sound — if you really in tune organically with the universe. You know, that’s easier said than done. Like you said, I was just creative.... We did [1974’s] Expansions, okay? Expand your mind! Then the next one was [1975’s] Visions of a New World, this new world that everyone really wants of universal peace and harmony, no wars, and things like that. So that was that was basically just be doing a lot of studying. Even I think the last thing I did with Pharaoh was [1971’s] Thembi. I was in the studio, I think in California, and everyone was unpacking [their equipment]. Cecil’s maybe unpacking his bass. Pharoah’s unpacking his horns. The drummer was setting up. I don’t have to unpack a grand piano [laughs]. But I saw this instrument sitting in the corner. I asked the engineer, “What is that?” He said, “Man, that’s a Fender Rhodes.” “Wow, I haven’t play that.” So I walked over. Soon as I sit down, I kind of mess with the knobs, and all of a sudden I started writing this song. Pharoah and everybody ran over. Even the engineer said, “Man, what is that?” “Oh, that’s a song I’m composing.” And he said, “Oh man, that’s beautiful. We gotta record that right now.” And he said, “Well, what are you gonna call it?” At the time, I was studying astral projection — you know, how you can leave your body and just go all over the universe. So I said, “Let’s call it ‘astral projection’ or ‘astral traveling,’ because it seems like we’re just floating out there in space.” And that’s what we did. So that whole the whole period [while] I was writing all these songs, it had just come from studying.

The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (4)JM: The location credits for some of those albums are sketchy. I know Visions of New World was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York. Were the previous recorded albums at RCA Studios? All I know is that they were all recorded in New York City.

LLS: Electric Lady, for some reason, that was it. Expansions was at Electric Lady. That was the place. Because if you notice, a whole lot of artists went through Electric Lady. Maybe it was a vibration or the atmosphere. But Electric Lady was special. But, you know, that’s what Jimi Hendrix wanted. I know we did Expansions and Visions there. I’m not sure about Renaissance. I don’t know if we did that at Media Sound or not. But in the beginning it was all Electric Lady Studios.

JM: Were [1973’s] Astral Traveling and [1974’s] Cosmic Funk recorded at RCA or at Electric Lady?

LLS: Ah.... I think those were probably at RCA. That’s interesting. I gotta look it up.

JM: I take it from what you said that you thought Electric Lady had the best atmosphere of the studios you were working in?

LLS: Yeah, for some reason it was very effective. You know, at that time, everyone was going to Electric Lady. It worked. Because I remember [recording] Expansion, then Visions of a New World [at Eclectic Lady]. I guess I always start with Expansions, not Cosmic Funk and Astral Traveling. But Astral Traveling was the first one, and I just did that just to do a record. I was still playing with Miles Davis. Bob Thiele called me after I did the record — months and months later — and said, “You gotta put a band together.” I said, “No, Bob, I’m gonna stay with Miles.” He said, “No you gotta go out and support your records.” I said, “Oh, shoot.” But that’s how that [my solo career] started.

JM: What was your relationship like with Bob? Obviously, he produced all of your albums in that period, and worked with Pharoah Sanders and others. He’s just all over all these classic records as a producer.

LLS: Oh, yeah. [He did] all the John Coltrane albums.... Bob was excellent. Because Bob, he never got in the way. You know, you were going to studio, and the artist could be himself and just record. He would concentrate on that particular song at that particular time. That was one of the best things about Bob. He just never dictated anything. He never told you what to do. To be a true artist, that’s what you want.

JM: Did you have instructions for him or feedback, in terms how you wanted each of the albums to sound as far as arrangements and mixing and things like that?

LLS: Oh, no. The main thing was all you had to do was just go in and record. After that, the rest was easy. All they’ve got to do is mix what you’ve already recorded. So you didn’t really have to tell him anything. You know, you might say [something] — like with Pharoah he wanted to bring his horn up more, thing things like that.

JM: What I’ve always found kind of interesting about your early-to-mid ‘70s records with Bob is that on a lot of those records your piano is set further back the mix. You’re more like the bandleader. The other instruments would often have the center stage. I was wondering if that was conscious decision of yours to say, “I’m bandleader, and even though I’m a pianist, I’m not foregrounding my piano playing or my keyboard playing or my organ playing. I’m sort-of sitting back and serving the song,” if that makes sense?

LLS: Oh, that’s interesting.... I guess, you’re right. That’s a good point. Because, you know, when you have very talented soloists, you want them to shine. So it didn’t bother me because the keyboards, I was accompanying them.... So I guess I was accompanying what they were doing and letting them shine, because that’s important.

The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (5)JM: Yeah, yeah. I was just really curious about that, because oftentimes as soon as someone does a solo record, it’s their chance to be up front. But even in your solo stuff, you kind of have this restraint. It’s pretty consistent across a lot of those albums in the in the early run with The Cosmic Echoes, and I didn’t know if that was like a conscious decision you made since you’re writing almost all the songs on all those albums, but they aren’t really structured as like a showcase for your keyboard or piano playing.

LLS: Oh, right. No, I guess it didn’t bother me because the whole thing was the sound of the group, and that’s what’s important. You know, as long as you can still hear my keyboards, it didn’t bother me. I think like later on when I did “Quiet Moments” [on 1978’s Exotic Mysteries] that was more [a showcase for] the grand piano. But that was later on. In the beginning, I guess I just wanted a group sound, as long as people could hear the keyboard. You could hear everything well, right?

JM: Oh, yeah, absolutely! That wasn’t a criticism at all. I was just curious because, like I said, it was consistent across that run of albums. So it seemed kind of like a conscious decision of, “Hey, this is my album. My name is on the cover. But that doesn’t mean it’s mainly a showcase for my playing.” Instead, like you said, it’s that the arrangements serve the individual song.

LLS: Yeah, I was just trying to give them I guess that whole unity thing again. I was just letting the band shine. That was the main thing. You know, people in the music business always say sometimes that I can be too laid back, anyway. Even just in normal life [laughs]. So I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

JM: People like you and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock all started bringing in what is often termed, for lack of a better word, “world music” into your jazz in the early-’70s. You all also started overlapping more with funk in the middle-’70s period. Then by the late-’70s and early-80s, you were moving further into funk and also into what eventually was called “quiet storm” smooth jazz and R&B. I know, obviously, that for everyone doing that — you, Miles, Herbie Hancock, and a bunch of other folks — it was kind of controversial to jazz purists...

LLS: Right.

The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (6)JM: What were your thoughts on that at the time? Were just following your muse? Or how did you decide, “I’m just going to ignore genre boundaries and do whatever feels right”?

LLS: Yeah. What was the last thing I did with Bob? Was it Renaissance? What happened was that the records were doing good: Expansions, Visions, Renaissance, and I forget the last one last one I did with Bob.

JM: Wasn’t the live album with him?

LLS: That was it. Okay. I’d never done a live album before, and that worked out great.

JM: But then you switched to Columbia/Sony after that, right?

LLS: That was it. What happened was that those records were doing so good that then the real large companies like Columbia and all of them call and talk to your manager and say, “We’ll give you X-amount of dollars,” which you have never received before — advances, which was really good. But when I got to Sony it was different, because they assign you a producer. You say, “Uh-oh.” But Bert deCoteaux was great, and he was a great arranger. You know, he put the strings and everything on “Quiet Moments.” And then I met [bassist] Marcus Miller. I heard him playing and I said, “Oh, he sounds great.” I think he was only 18 and 19 years old. I said [to him], “Man, I’m getting ready to go into the studio. Come on, I’m gonna take you.” Then he told me, “I got a song for you.” I said, “What song?” He had “Journey into Love” [starts playing it on piano]. Then he started singing the lyrics, and I said, “I like that.” So I took him into the studio, and the executives when they first saw said, “Man, what are you doing?” But then once they heard him the rest was history.

So then Marcus started writing [more], and I started doing a lot of his songs. But they were perfect. I really could relate to them. And Bert deCoteaux was doing the arranging.... At that time disco came in also. Disco kind of slowed a lot of things down. So Marcus said, “I got the song ‘Space Princess.’“ He said, “We’re gonna use jazz chords, but we’ll put the disco thing on the bottom. On top of that, you’ll still be doing your normal playing.” [plays ‘Space Princess’ on his piano, transforming it into something that sounds like a late-’50s standard]. So on top we’re playing “Space Princess“ [a 1978 disco crossover], but [underneath] we were still playing the way we’d normally when we were doing I guess they would call a “jazz composition.” We were still using all the jazz colors and the chords. And, you know, that [“Space Princess”] got a lot of a lot of airplay. That’s what happened when disco came in.

Marcus brought in “Space Princess,” and Bert deCoteaux did some excellent arrangements. He brought in all these top vocalists. They would come into the studio, and they were they were tops. They could just do everything. Patti Austin and all of them, they were background singers when they weren’t doing their solo thing. So that’s what happened. You know, we just tried it. Like you said, Herbie tried it. And even with Miles, he saw everyone that came out of my group, Weather Report, [and] Mahavishnu [Orchestra]. Tony Williams had a lot to do with that [jazz artists experimenting with other genres], because Tony influenced all of them with Lifetime. When Miles heard Tony Williams, that’s what inspired him for Bitches Brew. They were doing good. Miles saw all of these people coming out of his band, and they were very successful, you know? So he went on to do Bitches Brew, and the rest of the rest is history. And like you said, jazz purists, you know, I think even today we still have that problem. But music is music.

Lonnie Liston Smith discography on Apple Music, Qobuz, Tidal, and Amazon Music.

About the Author

The Interview Series | Lonnie Liston Smith (7)Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.

Top Articles

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Eusebia Nader

Last Updated: 10/27/2022

Views: 5688

Rating: 5 / 5 (60 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Eusebia Nader

Birthday: 1994-11-11

Address: Apt. 721 977 Ebert Meadows, Jereville, GA 73618-6603

Phone: +2316203969400

Job: International Farming Consultant

Hobby: Reading, Photography, Shooting, Singing, Magic, Kayaking, Mushroom hunting

Introduction: My name is Eusebia Nader, I am a encouraging, brainy, lively, nice, famous, healthy, clever person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.