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‘I'm cosmic’: Lonnie Liston Smith experiences a revival of interest in his music

 Lonnie Liston Smith
Lonnie Liston Smith

There's nothing like catching up with old friends so it was lovely chatting with Lonnie Liston Smith about his first recording project in 25 years. It's called Jazz is Dead 17 and it's the brainchild of Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, who convinced Lonnie to create some new music with a cadre of young musicians who are embracing the contemporary jazz of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: I don't know if you remember when I first started radio back in New Orleans at WYLD FM, “Thembi” was my theme song. This was how I came on and went off the air every day to “Thembi,” which I believe was when you really discovered the Fender Rhodes piano on that record.

Lonnie Liston Smith: That was it, Pat. It's the last thing that Pharaoh and I did. We were in California recording for the first time. I got in the studio, and before that, I only played the grand piano. I stared at the Fender Rhodes sitting in the corner, and I asked the studio engineer, “What is that?” He said, “That's the Fender Rhodes.” I walked over and the magic just started happening. I composed “As for Traveling” right there in the studio.

No question about it. You found a new sound. You created something that was so unique and so different, and here we are, 25 years since your last record was made. You’re back and I just can't imagine what it must feel like for you with what you are doing still be so relevant to so many people at this point.

I did this right before the pandemic hit. We were in California in February of 2020 and I wasn't familiar with the Jazz Is Dead record label. I know that they had already recorded vocalist Jean Carne and saxophonist Gary Bartz and even recorded Roy Ayers—all separate albums. When I got there, I was introduced to Adrian and Ali. It was amazing because when I got to the studio, it was just like the studios we had in the ‘70s. Same equipment. Same board. Everything analog. It was like the same board that we had back in the ‘70s when I was recording in New York. Same keyboards. When I got to the studio, it was only a bass player and a drummer. I said, “Wow, this is different.” They had little ideas and motifs that they wanted me to develop.

Also, there were no titles. I developed these on each one that we had. We just went on and played. What they do is when the artists leave town, they listen to it and they start adding all these different things—vocals and different sounds. They released it in April 2023 and I've been doing interviews all over the world since the release. People are excited. I said, “Well, I'm going to go along with the ride.”

 Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Lonnie Liston Smith and Adrian Younge
Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Lonnie Liston Smith and Adrian Younge

I've been hearing some of them too. The new record from Lonnie Liston Smith is called Jazz is Dead 17. This is a series that comes from the minds of Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who are young musicians who have embraced the old school. I was wondering, why do you think that these young guys have such old school sensibilities? Do they talk to you about that?

They said they really respect what we did back then. Even now, when you go to Europe and Japan and all over America, all the young kids are really fascinated with what happened in the ‘70s. They said that was one of the most creative periods so far as the arts and music in America. When I went out there, I recorded and they put a concert together and all these young kids showed up. It was sold out and they were really happy. For some reason, the younger generation right now worldwide is really consumed by the ‘70s.

I noticed that when I saw the footage of the concert, when they would pan the audience and you see all of these young people so engaged in this music, and also the musicians. Just watching everybody on the bandstand, it was really a joy to see. I think that one of the things that's happening right now is that people have so much more access to music. You can just go online without paying a penny, unfortunately, and access whatever you want to hear. All that music is there, it's available to them and they're really embracing it. That's got to mean a lot to someone like yourself who's been in this game for 60 years.

You’re right. It is amazing. I did the original Jazzmatazz with Guru. The young generation are discovering through samples. They'll hear the samples, they fall in love with the music, and then they go find the original ones that we recorded. That’s how they're discovering jazz.

It's really been a long time since we heard new music from you, which is a serious understatement. It's been 25 years. Can you fill us in on what's been happening during that period, because I know people were still calling you.

I was traveling, doing concerts all over Europe and Japan. We were doing a lot of the All-Star Jazz Legends performances. Sometimes we would go out, it would just be Roy Ayers or Ronnie Laws, Jean Carne and myself. The last one I did in Norfolk, it was Norman Connors, Jean Carne, and Ronnie Laws. We did those all over the world so I’ve definitely been busy.

Lonnie Liston Smith "Expansions" Katalyst and Loren Oden LIVE at Jazz Is Dead

When I heard the record Jazz Is Dead 17, there's a song on it called “Cosmic Changes” and it features a really wonderful vocalist whose name is Loren Oden. I could not help but think about your brother Donald because what you two created together was just a magical sound that has never been replicated. I think Donald was underrated for his piano playing because he was such a good singer. What a voice this man had.  That's got to be a little heartbreaking for you right now too. My condolences on your loss. Losing a sibling is difficult at best. But when someone who you have done so much together, as you guys have, it must be hard.

Yes, because as you said, it was very unique. Don and I were blessed because our father was a great singer, harmonizing for gospel groups. Donald and my middle brother Ray, they inherited my father's beautiful tenor voice. I could only sing the bass part, so I just sang through the piano. The first time I wrote lyrics was on Expansions. I called Donald because he was out there in Champaign, Illinois, with the Bridgewaters, who went to the University of Illinois.

I think Dee Dee Bridgewater and George Duke were all down there, weren't they?

That's right. Donald came to New York and it was just a very organic. I just played and he started singing and it just worked. People don't realize that our middle brother, Ray Smith, had a big hit record. He formed a group called The Jarmels and they had a big hit record called “A Little Bit of Soap.”

Music was in the blood for you guys. People who look back at your awesome career, working with Miles Davis, Pharaoh Sanders, Gary Bartz, Jean Carne, all of these people. But then to turn around and start to make your own music and create music that really topped the charts. You created top hits. What was that like?

That was fantastic, playing with all these different people, like Pharaoh and Gato. Then before all that, I was playing with Max Roach, and I played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and of course, Miles Davis. Everyone that played with Miles Davis, as soon as you left the group, you automatically formed your own band. Miles was always challenging you and he wanted you to create, I mean really create, every night. It just made you a better musician, made you much stronger. When Expansions came out, it just took off worldwide.


Talk about creating that record and what your process was. Did you think at the time that you were creating something that would be immortal as Expansions has turned out to be?

The unique thing was that every musician on that record was a straight-ahead jazz musician. When I brought the songs in, and we got into the studio, they just understood what was supposed to be done. For years, people thought that was electric bass, but that was Cecil McBee playing upright bass. The younger generation thought it was electric bass. Back then in New York, we were all searching. We'd go to these bookstores, you might see Trane there and he'd be studying different religions or different philosophies from around the world. Everyone was searching and then you’d run into Sun Ra. New York was so creative back then, so I just tried to put all that into music. When Expansions came out, the whole world said, “That's what we've been looking for.”

The messages that you've always conveyed in your music are probably even more important today than ever before. When I listen to “Expansions,” how much do people need to really know in order to embrace the heart of a song like that?

That's it, because back then, we did experiences. I wrote a song called “Give Peace a Chance” because when you study all the philosophies and things from around the world, everybody wants the same thing. You might be from a different country or speak different languages, practice a different religion, but everyone wants peace, harmony, and love. Right now, we are right back to doing the crazy wars again.

So here's the thing with music. You create music. That track was awesome with that drive and beat. When the piano comes in and then when Donald would start to sing, it was just all over. You could have said anything you wanted to say in that song, but you chose to say something positive and something that to me has really made that song immortal.

That’s the first time I wrote lyrics. We all came from the blues and the blues was always kind of sad but I said, “Let me put in some positive lyrics.” A good example of how I put it together. On the bottom, you put this funk because people can dance to it if they want to, and then you got the positive lyrics on top. And meanwhile, we still playing jazz.

In playing jazz, I know improvisation the same way we would do it if it was straight ahead. That's why it all worked. When I was working with Miles Davis, a lot of people got upset because they remembered Miles from the past, but I listened to Miles. I said, Miles is still playing the same way, but everything else had changed around him like the rhythm, things like that. People don't realize it's all the same. Some people get it.

What is wrong with reaching the largest number of people that you can? What's wrong with having as many people as you can come to your party? You talked a little bit about New York. When you moved there, it was a really incredible time. Talk about the music scene during those days. I lived uptown on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street. We used to go to St. Nick's Pub right around the corner. I remember seeing you guys over there a few times back in the day when you never knew who was going to come. George Benson would show up in there.

It really was just beautiful and crazy. We’d go to St. Nick’s or to Wells and you just didn’t know who might be playing. Joe Henderson might be playing. We would go from club to club, and then you might go down to the Five Spot and you could stand outside and you would hear Trane or Monk. We actually started recording right down the street at The Electric Ladyland, because Jimi Hendrix had just built it. That's where we did Expansions and a few other records. The whole scene in New York at that time, even the radio stations were playing real music and jazz. That was a great time.

It was really a great time and I think that the whole environment created a wonderful community of musicians. You guys were friends and I think you could hear the impact of that in the music that you all created, feeding on each other's spirits.

That's a good way to describe it because you have to feed on the other musicians’ spirit. That's the main thing about doing improvisation, in the spur of the moment, because you might be playing and then the drummer might do something and, and then that will excite everyone to go in a certain direction. The bass might do something or the keyboard player or the horn player. You never know. Because you're playing in the moment. That's why working with Miles was so great. Miles played with everyone, Charlie Parker--everyone. He wanted that spark every night. That makes you a great musician.

I think it's one thing to be a great musician, to create wonderful music, but you've contributed something really special. You contributed a sound. I'm curious about how you developed that sound. I know that some of it came from, as you alluded to, studying Eastern religions and really exploring the power of the mind. But talk about the sound that you made come from the keyboards and transitioning to the Fender Rhodes?

Well, that's a good point because when I first played the Fender Rhodes in the studio that day, it was just natural. I kind of messed with the knobs. I said, “Okay, you do this. Oh, that sounds great.” When I was with Miles, I saw that he had all these pedals hooked up to his trumpet. Before I did Expansions, I said, “Well, let me try this. First, I'm going to hook the pedals up to the Fender Rhodes.” It worked and that’s how I came up with that cosmic sound.

JID Sessions 017: Lonnie Liston Smith

Yeah, it definitely has worked. It’s pretty great to see that all this wonderful music that you created in the ‘70s and ‘80s still matters to people today. I would love for you to talk a little bit about Ali and Adrian and meeting them, what that has done for you in terms of validating who you are and everything that you've been about.

That was a good experience because I wasn't familiar with Adrian or Ali until they started telling me their history. Of course, Ali did a lot of things with D’Angelo which I wasn't aware of. Adrian also had done all kinds of things that I wasn't aware of. I guess they were much younger and then coming from hip hop. Adrian gave me a DownBeat magazine from way back in the past. I said, “Man, I've been looking for this for years.” They had gathered all kinds of historical pictures, magazines and things. They did their research and they had a studio. It was three sections there—a studio, something in the middle, and up front they had a record store. One Monday they were interviewing me in the record store, and I think it was going over to the BBC in London. When I walked into that part of the building where the record store was, I heard this sound and I said, “Man, that's a beautiful song. Who is that?” Everyone just looked at me and said, “Lonnie, that's you. That's you.” I said, “What?”

So this was the work that you had done with them?

No, this was different. It was something old I had done in the past and didn't recognize. It was just so beautiful and I never had any experience like that before. It was called “Just Us Two.” When I got back home, I relearned it but that was an out of body experience.

That is a cool thing to have made so much music that you don't even remember all of it. That you hear something you did and say, “Hey, that's kind of cool,” and find out it's you. It’s so exciting to see this next young generation embracing this music. I would imagine that when you got a call from someone who said they were with Jazz Is Dead Records, what were the first thoughts that came through your head when you heard that?

Wow, their label is called Jazz is Dead?

It’s cool because it grabs your attention. Their point is to show you that jazz is not dead. 

I asked them why they did it. They put out another video of me. I didn't realize it was recorded way back when, even before I did Expansions and they called it “Ill.” To us, to the older generation, ill means bad. But to the younger generation, ill means good.

It's the best it could possibly be. Well, during our generation, bad began to mean good so that's where there's nothing really new under the sun. But when you look at Jazz Is Dead 17 and the work that you did with Adrian and Ali, what are you most proud of?

Well, I didn't know what to expect because I didn't know what they were going to add. But then, like you said, Oden’s vocals are excellent and he's amazing. Kind of reminded me of Donald. When they were working on it, they would never let me hear it. But I would call him up and say, “Now remember, I'm cosmic, you know. Don't forget that.” They came up with the right titles and it came out much, much better than I thought it would. This is great.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.