Lonnie Liston Smith
In a career spanning 30 years, including stints with Art Blakey and Miles Davis and a string of hit fusion albums, Lonnie Liston Smith has seen the changing role of the jazz pianist at first hand. In London for a rare live outing, Lonnie talks keyboards while Simon Trask clicks his fingers, shuts his eyes and goes "yeahhh"
In the '70s he was expanding minds and delighting feet with his unique brand of deep, moody jazz fusion. Now veteran keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith is showing a new generation of dance musicians how to do it live...
When hip hop band Stetsasonic declared in 1988, on a track called 'Talkin' All That Jazz', that sampling brought James Brown back, they did so over the bassline from Lonnie Liston Smith's classic 70s jazz fusion cut 'Expansions' - begging the question: would 'sampling' bring Lonnie back?
The '80s had been, if not exactly the wilderness years, a comparatively low-key period for the American musician who had released a string of lyrical, warm and very successful jazz fusion albums in the second half of the 70s with his group Cosmic Echoes. Cast adrift from the major label which had helped to give him a high profile then, Lonnie spent much of the '80s putting out low-profile albums on low-profile independent labels. At the same time, the decade which belonged to the fast-developing technology of sequencers, samplers and drum machines didn't make life easy for musicians who were first and foremost live performers - like Lonnie Liston Smith.
Yet with a new decade has come something of a sea change in the attitudes of musicians and audience alike - a sea change which, paradoxically, the much-maligned sample loop has played no small role in bringing about. For it was here that much of the 70s funk, jazz and soul music, complete with that elusive 'live' feel, lived on within the heart of the electronic beast.
Nowhere was this more so than in hip hop. And if hip hop brought back the Godfather of Soul, it's also helped to bring back 70s heroes of a more jazzy persuasion, such as Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd and, yes, Lonnie Liston Smith. All three can be found, alongside such jazzers of the younger generation as Courtney Pine and Ronny Jordan, guesting on the new solo album from Gangstarr rapper Guru, Jazzamatazz.
When I spoke to the 52-year-old keyboard player in London, he was warm in his appreciation of hip hop and new jack swing. In fact, talking to Lonnie you soon realise that he's the sort of musician who's always looking to forge new musical alliances - a genuinely open-minded and creative musician. Not surprisingly, then, he's heartened by the continued appeal which his music holds for the younger generation.
"A young lady was telling me yesterday that she knows kids who are into the rap and the hip hop and who won't listen to anything else, but they listen to Lonnie Liston Smith," he says in a warm, gentle voice which seems entirely in keeping with his music - as does his relaxed, friendly manner. "This is amazing. That's what impressed me when I first came over here in 1975, to see kids of 12, 13, 14 actually dancing to 'Expansions', really getting into it.
"When I was at the Jazz Cafe recently, some young guys came upstairs to interview me and I asked how old they were. They said 'We're 18, 19 but we started listening to 'Expansions' when we were 14 or 15.' So now here's another generation."
Had Lonnie thought of 'Expansions' and all the other tracks he recorded in the '70s as dance music?
"No, but I had an idea in mind that I wanted to use contemporary rhythms. What happens is that every ten years the rhythm changes, 'cos each generation has its own concept of rhythm and beat. So I was using the rhythms of then, and the kids were dancing to it. But on top of that I wanted to make sure that the other part was meaningful. So, for instance, the kids can dance to 'Expansions', and then they can hear some guy really doing some improvisation on top.
"People often don't realise now, but jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington used to play mostly in places where people would come and dance to their music."
Lonnie's musical history stretches back much further than the '70s albums which brought him so much success: back to the early '70s, when he played and recorded with Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri; back to the mid '60s, when he worked as a pianist with Art Blakey, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Joe Williams; and back to the early sixties when he acted as piano accompanist for such singers as Betty Carter and Dakota Staton. We're talking Serious Jazz History here.
Listening to Lonnie recall the time he spent working with Miles Davis, you get a flavour of the sort of advantages that working as a band musician in a creative setting can bring.
"Working with Miles was great, because he really was a genius," he says. "He had his eccentric ways, but he just brought the best out of you, 'cos he was so strong. He held the whole thing together, management, agency, roadies - but on top of all that he still was a creative artist. The music was always first. That's what's important. You can be as big as Michael Jackson, but you can't get lost in that illusion. It's all part of the game, but the music has got to be it.
"The first Miles recording session I went to was with Herbie Hancock and another guy, and it was three keyboards, so I assumed that we were all supposed to play at different times. I'd never played with more than one keyboard before in my life, but Miles, he was like 'What the fuck are you waiting for?'. So he had three keyboard players, and we all played at once. You've got to listen, 'cos you can't get in one another's way. It was a good challenge, doing things you normally wouldn't do. But then of course that makes you stronger. If you notice, everyone that left Miles' band formed their own band, 'cos when Miles got through with you you'd been through it all!"
Think of keyboard players in the 70s - especially those working in jazz and its various mutations and cross-fertilisations - and one instrument springs readily to mind: the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Lonnie first discovered the Rhodes in 1971, at the recording session for Pharoah Sanders' album Thembi. Not only did he promptly fall in love with it, but he promptly made use of it on a track for the album which he composed on the spot, 'Astral Traveller.'
The Rhodes remained Lonnie's central keyboard throughout the 70s. He used a Suitcase 88 model with the standard speakers replaced by JBLs. In addition he routed the Rhodes' output through a chorus box, a wah-wah pedal and an Echoplex. Other staples of his 70s setup were a Hohner Clavinet and an ARP String Ensemble (both of which were eventually stolen while they were set up for a gig at the Village Vanguard in New York).
Today, the Rhodes which many a young British jazz/funk keyboard player would kill for resides in the basement of Lonnie's parents' house in Richmond, Virginia (pilgrimage time, anyone?). Lonnie's current live setup consists of a Roland D70 synth sitting atop a Roland RD300 digital piano. Having seen him play a couple of gigs last year, at the Jazz Cafe and The Orange in London, I'm struck by how warm a tone he's able to coax from these digital instruments - though, call me a traditionalist, his classic warm Rhodes sound from the 70s has yet to be bettered.
These days, it's not only 'Expansions' which gets sampled. Lonnie is an ever more sampled musician, a state of affairs he has no objection to - so long as he gets paid and he gets recognition. Fortunately, it seems, most people do it right. And yes, Stetsasonic did seek permission and they did pay - a one-off sum which, to Lonnie's best recollection, was in the range 3500 to 5000 dollars. Today, more clued up on the ins and outs of the legal situation, he goes for a percentage of royalties.
Lonnie's attitude to modern technology is a typically healthy one from such an open-minded and inquisitive musician.
"Technology is great if the artists know what to do with it. When people started playing electric guitar, that was technology, then all of a sudden they found out what to do with it, and you had all these different styles and all these great guitarists. Jimi Hendrix really showed you what you could do.
"So now I think with all these synthesisers, which are just another form of technology, the same thing is going to happen. The artist has got to take control, learn how to use the technology of today like people learnt how to use the electric guitar, and make an artform out of it."
He feels that it's important for youngsters to get to grips with technology from an early age, but at the same time to go out and learn to play live - strive to achieve a balance, if you like, between the bedroom and the boardwalk!
"You can learn things easier and faster when you're younger," he opines. "All the acoustic instruments, I'm afraid, might disappear in the 21st century, but the technology's not going to go away. So I'd say learn all that technology, but at least try to make some artform out of it."
And his model of a good modern musician?
"I was talking with Marcus Miller recently, and he's known for playing electric bass, but I know he also went out and bought himself an upright bass and he practices on it. He definitely knows how to use all these synthesisers and the sequencers and stuff - but he knows how to play live, too. So that's a good example, and all the young kids have got to realise that. They should also realise that we human beings, we have the magic - the machines can only sit there waiting for us to do whatever we're going to do with our creative imagination."
Interview by Simon Trask
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!