Fitzroy “Astral Traveling” with Lonnie Liston Smith Feb 2013
It was truly a pleasure to share the same humble space of the “Astral Traveling” Lonnie Liston Smith, an icon who has influenced so many with not just “Expansions” but countless other songs filled with love peace and unity. He has been headhunted by some heavyweight giants including Roland Raashan Kirk, Art Blakey, Pharoah Sanders and Miles Davis as well as introducing bassist supremo Marcus Miller to the recording world. For the best part of 50 years he’s been twinkling our ears with some of the most sublime vocal and instrumental compositions and taking us like one of his titles on a “Journey Into Love” with his ideas and “Visions Of A New World” with his “Cosmic Funk” and music full of “Exotic Mysteries”..a true soul survivor!! Lonnie emailed me after the interview and said this was one of the best interviews he’d done and that I should share it on the internet. So humbly here it is in it’s entirety.
How expanded was your mind from a very early age in West Virginia with your father being a member of The Harmonizing Four who sang at the late president Roosevelt’s funeral and with people like Sam Cooke frequenting your home?
It was a great experience with my father and the Harmonizing Four. He had a beautiful tenor voice and played a four string guitar. Both my brothers Ray and Donald inherited my fathers tenor voice with me only being able to do the bass part. There was music from day one with all these gospel groups coming through town and mum doing all the cooking. Back then they had gospel festivals like we have the jazz ones, so Sam Cooke and The Soulsters would often pass through. My dad although he was primarily gospel also appreciated all types of great music.
What was it about Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Mile Davis, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson that captivated you so much?
Before that I was singing in doo wop bands on the street corners and also played in R&B bands. Then I heard Charlie Parker and though what in the world is that because he was playing all this improvised jazz. Thats when I decided I knew what I wanted to do and started searching. I came across Miles, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Fats Waller then Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Also the Jazzy Philharmonics would be on tour and I’d get to see them in Richmond at the Moss Theatre in person.
What Charlie Parker record was it you heard?
It was called “Just Friends” from “Charlie Parker With Strings”, they use to call him Bird cause he was just flying through the air and he was phenomenal.
How do you move from working with jazz vocal giants Betty Carter and Joe Williams to relocating to New York and becoming one of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers?
After I finished high school in Richmond I went to Morgan State University in Baltimore which had a great jazz scene and Gary Bartz was born there also. We got together and started jazz sessions jamming together and Gary’s father had a club called North End Lounge. So we’d get to see people like Ethel Innis and years later we became Betty Carter’s back up band when she came to Baltimore. When I got to New York I worked with Betty and started getting known hence Joe Williams asked me to be his musical director. I later got a call to work with Art Blakey and Chuck Mangione is on the trumpet.
By now you were coming through the ranks with another up and coming soloist Gary Bartz and James Mtume was he around that time?
Mtume was much later and we met at a place you’d have loved in Brooklyn New York called The East. It had brothers and sisters in there eating vegetarian food and the audience brought their own percussion instruments. Mtume was a part of that so thats how we met and worked together with Miles Davis.
You were approached by drummer Max Roach and record two albums with Roland Rahsaan Kirk .
“Please Don’t Cry Beautiful Edith” and “Here Comes The Whistle Man” were the two albums. Rahsaan was interesting because he played three horns simultaneously and had a nose flute. Working with Max he really was a master drummer experimenting with time and thats not easy as most of the time we playing with four four, three four or six four bars. I could manage five four but then Max was into seven four and nine four.
How did Pharoah Sanders realise your potential in the late 60’s and choose to work with you after having served under the late great John Coltrane?
I heard him with John Coltrane and thought wow as he was playing two or three notes simultaneously which worked but you not suppose to be able to do that. At the time I only played the grand piano and wanted to use more than my ten fingers to create more sound. So I started using my elbows and Pharoah noticed that difference about me like I did him on the horn. Then we heard Leon Thomas yodeling and eventually all got together. We didn’t rehearse that much, we just played and expanded.
What kind of consciousness were you experiencing to be able to create that astral spiritual esoteric soulful jazz embraced by many whom you’d work with like Norman Connors, Gary Bartz, Doug and Jean Carn and other outfits like Earth Wind & Fire who would integrate cosmology and Egyptology which was a very specific thing at the time ?
That’s right and a good point as we were all studying. I was studying everything the Rosicrucian thing, Theosophical Society, sophism which was very interesting and I was trying to come up with this universal sound concept. Thats why I wrote “Expansions” and “Give Peace A Chance” as if you studied all these religious things and everybody was saying the same thing I questioned so why we fighting? There was a bookstore called Wasners who had every philosophical and religious books and you’d walk in and see Sun Ra reading books in there.
Whats the story I read about you discovering the Fender Rhodes whilst working with Pharoah and Cecil McBee and instantaneously creating the song “Astral Traveling”?
Now if people like history they should go by the record “Thembi” by Pharoah Sanders. Now we were on the road in California and as we entered the studio the grand piano was already there so I didn’t have to do anything. Cecil, Pharoah and the others started unpacking their instruments and I’d never seen a Fender Rhodes before and asked the engineer what it was. He told me so I started experimenting with it and this song just came to me organically like it came from the creator. Everybody came running over asking what I was playing and I replied I don’t know I’m just writing it and they said we gotta record this now. They asked me what I was gonna call it and because I was studying astral projection where you leave your body,I said It felt like I was floating in space so hence the name “Astral Traveling”. I wrote a 12 bar 21st century cosmic blues song.
How valuable was the experience of working with both Gato Barbarei on a few albums and then Miles Davis on his legendary “On The Corner” album?
Gato heard me with Pharaoh at a famous club in New York called Slugs which all the real creative artists including actors would congregate and it was also were Lee Morgan’s wife shot him. Now Gato is from Argentina and I listened and tried to see where I could fit in with how he played and I traveled all over the world with him. When we hit London I was introduced to Bert Luigi as they were getting ready to work on the film Last Tango In Paris. Working with Miles is a whole different experience. With Miles when I first walked into the studio, there were three electric piano’s and I thought I had to wait my turn. Miles came over cursing what the freekin…?? I explained I didn’t know I was just suppose to play. Herbie Hancock was on one ,another guy Williams was on another then me and I’d never worked with two let alone three keyboard players. We just had to listen so we didn’t get in each others way and Miles put the band together with Dave Liebman on sax, Mtume on congas, me on keyboards and Alphonse Mouzon on drums. Working with Miles is great as he’s real and candid all the time on and of the stage and everybody who worked with Miles has formed their own groups. Miles is gonna make you strong one way or another.
Producer Bob Thiele signed you for a series of albums on Flying Dutchman affiliate with RCA with your Cosmic Echoes where by on the second album your brother vocalist and flautist Donald Smith sang lead vocals on “Cosmic Funk”. What was that feeling like to get your first record deal and to have some artistic control over your new found direction as jazz was definitely changing rapidly in the early to mid 70’s ?
I’ve been blessed as everything has happened to me organically. I was still working with Miles and was happy but Bob called and said everyone all over the world was asking about me doing a solo album. So I flew back to New York after a break with Miles and did Astral Traveling using the tablas,tambura’s and trying the universal sound thing. I went back to working with Miles meanwhile Bob had put the record out and wanted me to start supporting it . I didn’t want to leave Miles’s band and Miles just laughed saying that, that is how the the music business works. By the time we get to the “Expansions” album I remembered that Miles had these pedals hooked up to to his trumpet so I tried it with the electric piano and it worked.
It was the 3rd “Expansions” album that catapulted you into the main stream and as a serious composer musician. When you wrote “Expansions” originally is it different to how it turned out as its hard to imagine where the vocal and musical direction came from as it upon first hearing it such an inspirational piece of music?
It was the first time I’d ever written lyrics and after all that research and seeking via philosophy and religions it made me want to give people some positive lyrics. On that record everyone was as straight ahead jazz musician and I discovered that people realised I was on electric piano but thought that Cecil McBee was on an electric bass but it was an upright bass. It was just meant to be as Donald had that beautiful tenor voice like my father and we all liked the funk fusion flavour but wanted to maintain the jazz.
Who directed the artwork on those fantastic Flying Dutchman gatefolds?
The artist was Jack Martin from New Jersey and he listened to the album and came up with the concepts as I wanted the covers to go with the music. The original paintings which I bought off him were better than the covers. He did a beautiful African mask on the top of the keyboard which you would lift up and RCA got nervous and said we couldn’t use the mask.
They are such amazing covers and they invite you to what you are about to listen to.
Donald’s voice became so distinctive on many a composition with a deep haunting yet soothing karma about it on whatever tempo he sang on. He was different to Leon Thomas and Andy Bey who also that spirit of singing but Donald would hover over a plethora of music like an Arabian Knight on a magic carpet. As well as being a gifted flute player how integral was Donald in interpreting your musical visions?
Remembering my father’s tenor I knew that Donald could do it my middle brother Ray already exposed it with a hit you’ve all listened to but not realised was him. Remember the song “A Little Bit Of Soap” (will wash away your tears) by The Jarmells ? (Yeah ) That’s Ray Smith the middle brother and had a hit way before we did and got out of the music business as he was frustrated. So it was easy to choose Donald.
One of my fave albums is “Visions Of A New World” as well as “Devika” and “Give Peace A Chance” in particular “Visions Of A New World Phase 2” which was jazz funky like “Expansions” without lyrics shorter and instrumentally spiritual. How did that album fare after the success of “Expansions” ?
Oh yeah I haven’t played “Visions Of A New World Phase 2” in a while. Those albums were just flowing and when we did Visions part one with Donald and myself in the studio, we couldn’t get the beat together for part 2. Now there was a little drummer called Wilby Fletcher who just popped by with someone and he just walked over to the drums and started playing and we said thats it and he was only 16 years old.
I love the concept of “Renaissance” and it It seems more experimental than the previous albums. It really does paint an astrological picture with instrumental greats like “Mongotee”, the latin dancer “Mardi Gras” and an enchanting “Space Lady”. You seem to flex with ease between the acoustic and electric keys on various tracks and Donald excels vocally on the title track. At this point did you feel you now had the winning formular?
Yeah actually I didn’t realise that you all were dancing to “Mardi Gras”. I knew about “Expansions” but nothing else. It was all done in the creative flow of the cosmos.
“Reflection Of A Golden Dream” was the last collaboration with producer Bob Thiele with some special moments , you singing “Get Down Everybody” and Donald on “Beautiful Woman” and the reggae tinged “Peace & Love”. What led to your vocals being on “Get Down” and how did you sum up that 6 album relationship with the gifted Bob Theile?
Bob suggested I should sing it as it didn’t need an amazing vocal to do it and it amazes me how many people like the song “Get Down Everybody”. Working with Bob Thiele was great because he produced John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong’s greatest hit “Wonderful World” which I was in the studio when that was recorded as everyone wanted to meet Louis Armstrong.
Before I move on to the CBS catalogue with a different line up you recorded “Summer Nights” and “Shadows” from your expansion albums on “The Mysterious Flying Orchestra” album with Bob Theile and brother Donald quite differently. Which versions do you favour of each?
Bob asked someone to do the arrangements and I liked the versions of my songs but I prefer my original versions. But you like to hear people interpret your compositions like when people sample your music, they are really just re arranging it.
The move to CBS is not far production wise from where you left Flying Dutchman as heard on Loveland but definitely more jazz fusion and funky epitomised especially on “Sunburst” and “Explorations”. I’m passionate about “Bright Moments” as it’s so uplifting and Donald reigns supremely vocal on “We Can Dream” and “Journey Into Love”. The latter two written by a new addition to the group a 16 year old bass playing boy wonder Marcus Miller. How did you come across him and what kind of immense talent did he have at such an early age?
I was in Jamaica Queens and all these musicians Tom Browne, Lesette Wilson were all neighbours and we ended up in a jam session. I was jamming with the bass player who was 16 and has his hat turned around. He was good and when we took a break he came over to me and said he’s got a song for me. In my mind I’m looking at a 16 year old kid and I kinda accommodated him. He sits at the electric piano and plays a groove and I’m listening thinking …ok . That track was “Journey Into Love” and it reminded me of how Miles would listen to what would be music of the future when he was around younger musicians so I took Marcus into the studio. Columbia got upset of me bringing in someone so young but once they heard him they changed their attitude. The first record Marcus produced was for me.
I love the smooth jazziness of “Quiet Moments” and the intricacy of “Magical Journey” but the one that rocked everyone was again written by Marcus Miller “Space Princess” . I remember the first time I heard it its sounded incredible with Donald like we’ve never heard him before. How did you find that transition moving into disco and fusing jazz?
It was like “Expansions” in keeping the jazz element except we had to find the balance of the pretty jazz chords and the predominant disco beat. Burt came up with the strings and the middle section with the percussion it just worked. We wanted to elevate the disco thing above just being emphasised on the beat.
I knew James “Crab” Robinson from working with Norman Connors on his “This Is Your Life” album . How did you come across him and what happened why Donald no longer involved?
James was from Mount Vernon New York and sounded like Donald who left to do his own thing. James took over from Luther in Change and people recognised his potential. Donald was also a piano player and wanted to pursue other avenues. I felt Donald had a unique voice that was more powerful but he had to go through what he went through.
With Donald and Marcus no longer on board you enter a new realm with “Love Is The Answer” on of my faves for sure with “Bright Moments” part 2 “In The Park” (That’s A Groove) an updated and uptempo’d “Give Peace A Chance” and the most improvised and prophetic cut “Speak About It” co written by the vocalist James Robinson. As a final album and now having done four CBS albums what led to you leaving and what pasture new lay ahead?
It’s like whats going on now, there are a lot of changes at the top. I remember there were new deals made and then a new crew comes in who are not responsible for unsigned contracts. Its like sport when a new coach comes in and bring his crew.
How did you become involved in the New York Jazz Explosion tour with Roy Ayers, Jean Carn and Tom Browne amongst others and how successful was that?
We sold out at the Hammersmith so many shows and Paul Zuzzaski came up with the concept and it took off in the States and everywhere we went around the world. It was easy as everyone used the same rhythm section, I’d do four songs then when we changed there was a natural flow and people loved it.
Like Bob James and Ahmed Jamal you are regarded as one of the forefathers of “Smooth Jazz” that also dipped his toe in hit making machine like your success with “Never Too Late”. How were you finding not being on a major label?
It wasn’t that bad as Bob Thiele would always end up calling as he was great at getting record deals and was still connected at Sony and RCA. So when he set up Dr Jazz we naturally went with him.
I loved the production with Larry Joseph on the Hitman 12 “Say You Love” me experimenting with jazz and electro early house productions. How did you hook up with Larry Joseph?
I forget who set that up but it worked.
Many other musicians like Charles Earland were experimenting with the astronomy and cosmology concepts on the album covers and within their music. Was it just a certain type of musician that would tap into this or was it a passing fad that many touch and then left?
Everybody had their own way of expressing how they felt as we were all searching and creating.
You’ve been sampled by Stetsasonic for the amazing “Talking All That Jazz” also by Digable Planets using “Devika” and Guru had you on his Jazzamataz album on “Rap Meets Jazz”. How do you deal with the adulation from the younger generation and how do you feel about the state of music today?
The young kids a re discovering jazz through the samples who then go and buy the originals. I’m meeting young 16-18 year olds who tell me “Garden Of Peace” is a beautiful song which makes me wanna re record it. The sampling works as a re arrangement so its beneficial.
How much fun was it to work with Brian Jackson at the Hideaway last year and how was Ronnie Scotts this weekend?
That was something as I haven’t seen Brian Jackson for years and we used to tour together when we both had hit records in the 1970’s. Mark suggested putting three keyboard players together and we went to Atlanta at Clarke University and then we came here at the Hideaway in London. At first when looked for the venue we couldn’t find it, then when we saw the entrance we got nervous but when we got inside we loved the vibe of the club.
I think it’s called the Hideaway for a reason(Both laugh)
You seem like a gentle soul and very humble in greeting fans like me when we met at Hideaway. How do you maintain that over more than 40 years in this sometime scrupulous business as your karma is so tranquil?
The music is more important than all this craziness. When it comes to business and money greed takes over in which ever business and that is a universal problem. When I became a Hebrew Israelite and my Hebrew name is Yehuwdah I started feeling much calmer. I heard someone say don’t let your past destroy your future and I believe in karma anyway.
We are such die hards over here that we will buy a record even if you are featured on someone else’s album for one track. Apart from “Expansions” we danced to “Space Princess”, “Visions Of A New World Part 2”, “Get Down Everybody”, “Bright Moments”, “In The Park”, “We Can Dream” and “Speak About It”..
Wow I didn’t know that and that’s why I appreciate London cause one time you had it all with some great radio stations which I understand no longer exist in providing that platform. You had Greg Edwards Robbie Vincent and Gilles and I’d hear a record and not realise it was an American artist and it all sounded great. I hope you don’t lose that.
What it is, is many people of mixed cultures grew up with the music in the 70’s and things were slowly changing in many ways . Like me many young black teenagers were slowly being allowed into clubs as there was prior a lot of segregation. At the time in certain clubs it was white Dj’s playing black music to a predominantly white audience who liked jazz funk and disco. (We didn’t know all that)Prior to my generation my parents and their peers were only able to go to local house parties within the community and also church halls and town halls because of the level of racism that didn’t allow them to mix like we were able to by the late 1970’s. Everyone started discovering through music the messages in records like “Expansions”, the Philly stuff and artists like Roy Ayers. We were connecting to it via dancing and subliminally taking it all in. With all these intricate new sound and new genres jazz fusion soul funk disco, we discover musicians like Chic Corea and Herbie Hancock. We danced to it even though it was too fast for some but it was somewhere we felt we had some kind of complete autonomy .
That impresses me..You know something when I was with Max Roach we’d listen to Charlie Parker, DIzzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus on bass and Bird on piano and we’d say listen to that music. Max would say they were playing for dancers, ..it was fast but they could dance to it and thats what you’re doing now.
Thanks Lonnie it’s been inspirational
Thanks Fitzroy I enjoyed meeting you again
Lonnie Liston Smith is appearing along side Roy Ayers on Sunday Bank Holiday 29th May @ Ashford School Kent for tickets and info click this link Lonnie Liston Smith & Roy Ayers Event