Lonnie Liston Smith
Lonnie Liston Smith is one of contemporary music's most versatile musicians. In a career that spans some 25 years, he has been headlined in a variety of recordings as a featured sideman for some of Jazz music's most illustrious leader's before stepping out to reveal his own original concepts as a bandleader in the mid 70s. He is a keyboardist of the first rank and has influenced a generation of young players who have acknowledged his rhythmic (swing), harmonic acumen and composing skills.
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Lonnie was born in Richmond, Virginia into a musical household -- his father was a member of the Gospel Harmonizing Four. From a very early age, Lonnie remembers such groups as the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke being frequent visitors. There was a piano in the house and he began investigating its sound before receiving formal instructions a few years later. It was during high school that Lonnie became enamored with modern Jazz through hearing alto saxist Charlie Parker, one of the seminal figures in the music. It was not long before he was listening to Miles Davis (a future employer), as well as John Coltrane. Not surprisingly, he patterned his keyboard style after innovative horn players, and not the many fine pianists around. Of course, he was aware of artists like McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, and Thelonius Monk, but made a deliberate effort not to mimic their styles
Beginning his career gigging in the Baltimore area as a teenager, Lonnie became adept at backing vocalists such as Ethel Ennis and visiting dignitaries like Betty Carter. While attending Morgan State University, he woodshedded with his peers, Gary Bartz (alto), Grachan Moncur (trombone), and Mickey Bass (bass). At the time, Mickey was gigging with drummer, Art Blakey and recommended Lonnie for the band's piano spot. He ventured to New York with Blakey's Jazz Messengers, which brought him significant visibility and the opportunity to record with the band. Next, Lonnie went with drummer Max Roach, which was unusual, as he rarely used a piano in his ensemble. Unfortunately, his year with Roach was not documented on vinyl, but these gigs did elevate his status as one of the up and coming players on the scene. He then enjoyed a 2 year stay with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which was documented by "Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith" on Verve and "Here Comes The Whistleman" on Atlantic.
Lonnie's next 3 gigs were perhaps the most important stepping stones in his career. He got the call from Pharaoh Sanders in 1968 and made his mark in one of the most visible ensembles of the day. Sanders, who had worked with John Coltrane until his death in 1967, was (and still is) an intense firebrand who was extending the boundaries of improvised music.
His sidemen were encouraged to create on the spot, and Lonnie rose to the challenge. He began to experiment with electric keyboards and created a rich carpet of sound to support Pharaoh's impassioned tenor sax flights. Lonnie composed "Astral Traveling: which appeared on Pharoah's Thembi LP. His contributions to "Upper Egypt", "Karma", "Creator Has a Master Plan", "Summun, Bukmun, Umyun", and "Jewels of Thought" were essential to the band's sound.
He was then invited to join the Miles Davis group, in which he became part of Davis' revolving cast of players in a blur of marathon studio work. Much of these early 70s sessions remain unreleased, but Lonnie appears on parts of "On The Corner" and "Big Fun". Next, he hooked up with Argentinean Saxophonist Gato Barbieri which reunited him with producer Bob Thiele (who supervised Sander's albums on the Impulse label). Lonnie toured Europe and worked with such world class players as Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, Airto, Nana Vasconcelos, Bernard Purdie, and John Abercrombie, who all recorded as sidemen on Gato's LPs such as "Fenix" and "Under Fire" for the Flying Dutchmen label.
Among the many contributions he made to the work of other artists at the time, Lonnie was recruited by Miles Davis in 1974 to contribute keyboards to the Big Fun release (pictured above). In fact, Lonnie attributes Miles Davis with having first introduced him to the electric organ while on the concert circuit with Davis' band -- prior to the intense recording sessions for Big Fun. "It was the first time I'd ever seen such an instrument," said Lonnie,"it was intimidating. Then Miles gave me two nights to learn how to make music on the thing. Miles liked to introduce new sounds in a surprising way -- that's how he produced such innovative, fresh music."
Thiele signed Lonnie to a solo contract for the first time, which both symbolically and tangibly ushered in a new image for the artist as a leader. While Astral Traveling was released in 1974 as his first vinyl, it was his third album, titled Expansions (pictured below), that propelled Lonnie into the spot light as a major jazz recording artist.
The LP was a breath of fresh air in 1975 as it combined solid Jazz conventions with creative crossover elements. But rather than diluting the music, the unconventional use of new sounds in Expansions broadened the boundaries of the genre which lead to today's contemporary new jazz mix. While many of Lonnie's contemporaries were making records that were artistically bankrupt (fusion music at this time had become big business) his LPs retained warmth and fire. He recorded several more albums in this vein, including Visions of a New World and Renaissance before he was approached by CBS. Lonnie continued to produce inventive records for them as well, including Loveland, Exotic Mysteries, Song for the Children, and Love Is The Answer.
He renewed his association with Bob Thiele again, who had distribution deal with CBS, and once again recorded well received albums including Silhouettes, Rejuvenation, and Dreams of Tomorrow. Lonnie also appeared on the Jazz Explosion Tour with Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Angela Bofil, Stanley Clarke and Gato Barbieri, while keeping his audience's attention through incessant roadwork.
In the 90s, Lonnie became involved with Guru Jazzmatazz Volume One (Rap meets Jazz) and turned on a new young audience to the power of Jazz. Throughout the years, Lonnie has been surrounded by jazz greats, including the young lions making the scene like Doc Powell, and the late Zachary Breaux, among many others. In addition, his unconventional composition style incorporating (what were at the time) unexpected instruments have been studied and odopted by many young recording artists burning with the desire to leave make their marks in music -- from hip hop to jazz.
In spring of 1998, Lonnie emerged from his production studio with a new CD called Transformation (pictured above). In less than a month of having entered the market, Transformation was ranking spins on progressive jazz radio stations the world over. Time after time, Lonnie Liston Smith has demonstrated his ability to cross the bridge between the traditional to contemporary (or, smooth jazz) genres, and always seems to find himself on the leading edge of a new sound. In his own words, Lonnie sees Transformation as a new beginning in his long career of reaching his audience musically.
Early in his musical career, Lonnie learned about the magical, healing power of music. Since that impressionable time, he has cultivated a rich musical mosaic which he hopes has helped to expand the consciousness, and raise the moral values of Planet Earth's humanity.
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