“I came to London in the 70s and was so pleasantly surprised to see the kids dancing to ‘Expansions’,” recalled Lonnie Liston Smith to me back in 2004. “‘Expansions’ was the first time I really thought about writing lyrics,” he revealed. “I said well, okay, let’s come up with some really enlightening lyrics and at the same time the people can dance to it if they want to.” Regarded as his signature song, ‘Expansions’ – which features lead vocals from Smith’s younger sibling, Donald, over an intoxicating bass-propelled groove – was quickly adopted as an anthem by the UK jazz-funk club scene and appropriately kicks off BGP’s new anthology focusing on the Virginia keyboard player’s Flying Dutchman output.
Before going solo in the mid-70s, Smith’s CV as a sideman was impressive – he had played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and had productive stints with Miles Davis (he contributed to Miles’ controversial 1972 album “On The Corner”), Gato Barbieri and most significantly of all, Pharoah Sanders. It was playing with Sanders that Smith discovered the electric piano, an instrument that became a crucial component in establishing his trademark sound.
“The very first time I played the Fender Rhodes piano was on Pharaoh Sanders’ album “Thembi”,” said Smith. “Everything I’d done before then was on acoustic piano. As Pharaoh was opening his case for his horn and everybody was setting up I found this instrument sitting in the corner. I walked over and started messing about with the knobs. All of a sudden I started writing this song – all the musicians ran over and said ‘Man, what is that? We have to play that. What are you going to call it?’ At that time I was studying astral projection and it sounded like I was floating so I said let’s call it ‘Astral Traveling’. And from that I developed a whole new sound on the Fender Rhodes. Everybody fell in love with it.”
Smith recorded ‘Astral Traveling’ with his own band, the Cosmic Echoes, for Flying Dutchman. With its dreamy keyboard passages it’s a key song in Smith’s repertoire and reflects his interest in gaining knowledge and wisdom by exploring religion, philosophy and spirituality. He was heavily influenced by Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders in that respect and although he desired to articulate a similar spiritual message in his music his sound was much more accessible than that made by those two musicians. “I was trying to keep it all enlightening,” reflected Smith. “I was trying to make people think but at the same time because people love rhythm I wanted to make music they could dance to. I put the two combinations together and it made sense.”
Another track that reflected Smith’s fascination with spirituality is his pacifist anthem ‘A Chance For Peace’. Explained the keyboardist: “I started to study all these different philosophies and Eastern religions. It became fascinating because basically all religions are saying the same thing. So I started to think, why are we having all the problems and all the confusion and all the wars?”
A similar theme manifested itself on 1976’s ‘Get Down Everybody (It’s Time For World Peace)’, a positive plea for global harmony married to dance floor funk. Other highlights on the new collection showcase the meditative side of Smith’s music, exemplified by the ethereal and otherworldly ‘Meditations’ and ‘In Search Of Truth’ with its exotic mysticism.
Fast-forwarding to 2012 and Lonnie Liston Smith’s music still sounds fresh, vibrant and above all, relevant. The fact that many of the songs on this collection have been plundered for samples in the hip-hop era – by Jay-Z, Stetsasonic, Mary J Blige and others – affirms the enduring appeal of his cosmic sounds.
By Charles Waring