Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman was the perfect label for Lonnie Liston Smith and The Echoes’ unique brand of cosmic jazz. Through working with some of the most innovative and creative musicians in the history of jazz, Bob must have realised that often, large record companies aren’t the best environment for innovative and creative musicians. Often, these musical mavericks didn’t thrive within such an orthodox environment. Their creativity is restricted, meaning they’re unable to experiment and innovate like they’d like. So when Bob parted company with Impulse, who he’d transformed into one of jazz’s pioneering labels, he founded Flying Dutchman Productions. This was the label that Lonnie Liston Smith and The Echoes would release a quintet of groundbreaking albums. Their debut was Astral Travelling, which was recently rereleased by BGP Records, a subsidiary of Ace Records. Astral Travelling is a cosmic jazz classic, which I’ll tell you about. Before that, I’ll tell you about’s Lonnie’s career.

It was almost inevitable that Lonnie Liston Smith would become a musician. He was born in December 1940, into a musical family. His father was a member of Richmond Gospel music group the Harmonising Four. During his childhood, members of The Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones visited the Smith household. As if inspired, Lonnie learned piano, tuba and trumpet in High School and college. Next stop for Lonnie was Morgan State University.

Inspired by Trane, Bird and Miles Davis, Lonnie embarked upon a degree in musical education. Throughout his time at University, Lonnie continued playing the pianist in local clubs and singing backing vocals. He played with alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and trombonist Graham Moncur. This was all part of Lonnie’s musical eduction. Having completed his BSc in musical education at Morgan State University, Lonnie walked straight into a job.

On leaving Morgan State University, Lonnie got a job with the Royal Theatre’s house band. For a young musician, this was would help turn them into a musical all-rounder. After all, they had to be able to accompany a wide range of artists. For Lonnie, this was the next stage in his musical education. The next part of  his musical education took place in New York.

Having moved to New York, Lonnie was luck enough to get a gig playing piano in Betty Carter’s band. This helped Lonnie get his name known in the Big Apple. Then in early 1965, Lonnie caught a break. He joined Roland Kirk’s band and made his recording debut on March 14th 1965. That was when Here Comes The Whistleman was recorded live in New York Lonnie only played on the title-track, Making Love After Hours, Yesterdays and Step Right Up. Then Lonnie featured on Roland andAl Hibbler’s 1965 live album A Meeting Of The Times. After this Lonnie, joined one of jazz’s top bands.

Over the last few years, The Jazz Messengers had established a reputation for young musicians looking to make a name for themselves. Lonnie joined in 1965. He shared the role with Mick Nock and Keith Jarrett. However, with The Jazz Messengers ever evolving lineup, Lonnie only played three in concerts. These three concerts just so happened to be at the legendary Village Vanguard. For Lonnie, despite the prestigious venue, this must have been a disappointing time. Luckily, he was rehired by Roland Kirk. 

Lonnie  rejoined Roland Kirk’s band in time to play on his 1968 album Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith. This established Lonnie’s reputation as the go-to-guy for a pianist. It was the start of period where Lonnie worked with some of the most innovative and inventive jazz players. Musical boundaries were about to be pushed to their limits as Lonnie joined Pharaoh Saunders’ legendary free jazz band.

Pharaoh Saunders had worked closely with John Coltrane right up to his death in 1967. The following year, Pharaoh formed a new band. Their music is best described as free jazz. Musical boundaries were pushed to their limits and beyond. Recognising a fellow believer in free jazz, Pharaoh asked Lonnie to join his band. Lonnie went on to play on three of Pharaoh’s best albums. The first of this trio was 1969s Karma. It was followed in 1970 with Jewels of Thought and 1971s Thembi. The other Pharaoh Saunders album Lonnie played on was 1970s Summun Bukmun Umyun. which was released on Impulse. Just like the three albums Pharaoh recorded for Flying Dutchman, it was a groundbreaking album.

During this period, Pharaoh and his band were constantly pushing boundaries and rewriting the musical rulebook. Their music was truly groundbreaking. Even Lonnie was challenged. On Thembi, Pharaoh asked Lonnie to play the Fender Rhodes. This was the first time that Lonnie came across an electric piano. However, he rose to challenge and wrote Thembi’s opening track Astral Travelling. Later, Astral Travelling would become synonymous with Lonnie Liston Smith and The Echoes. Before that, Lonnie would play with some of jazz’s mavericks.

One of these mavericks was Gato Barbieri. He’d just signed to Bob Thiele’s nascent label Flying Dutchman Productions. It was establishing a reputation for providing musicians with an environment where innovative and creative musicians could thrive. Bob believed musical mavericks didn’t thrive within such an orthodox environment. Their creativity is restricted, meaning they’re unable to experiment and innovate like they’d like. So, Bob signed Gato to Flying Dutchman. Lonnie played on his 1969 debut album The Third World. Bob’s next signing was Leon Thomas and played on his debut album Spirits Known and Unknown. Soon, Lonnie was a regular at Flying Dutchman sessions.

When the time came for Gato to record his 1971 sophomore album Fenix, Lonnie was called upon. He played on Fenix and joined Gato’s band. Lonnie played on Gato’s 1972 album El Pampero. He also toured throughout Europe with Gato. Then came the opportunity of a lifetime. After El Pampero, Lonnie got the chance to work with another jazz legend.

Lonnie was a member of Gato Barbieri’s band when Miles Davis got in touch. He wanted Lonnie to join his band. At this time, Miles’ music was changing direction. The direction it was heading in was funk. Electronic instruments were the flavour of the month for Miles and he was exploring their possibilities. However, Miles was doing this outside the studio environment. That’s why there are very few recordings of Lonnie playing alongside Miles at that time. That came later, when Lonnie would later work with Miles. Meanwhile, Lonnie decided to move on with his solo career and his debut album Astral Travelling.

For Astral Travelling, Lonnie wrote four new tracks. The other track was Astral Travelling, which Pharaoh Saunders had recorded on Thembi. These five tracks were recorded by an all-star jazz band, who Lonnie christened The Cosmic Echoes. 

When recording of Astral Travelling began, Lonnie had put together some of the most talented and innovative musicians. The Cosmic Echoes’ rhythm section included bassist Cecil McBee, drummer David Lee and guitarist Joe Beck. Sonrily Morgan and James Mtume played percussion and conga, Gee Vashi tamboura and Badal Roy tabla. George Barron played tenor and soprano saxophone and Lonnie played piano and electric piano on Astral Travelling. Bob Theile produced Astral Travelling, which was released in 1973.

On its release in 1973, Astral Travelling was critically acclaimed. It was as if Lonnie had drawn upon all his experience working as a sideman. He’d worked with Pharaoh Saunders, Gato Barbieri, The Jazz Messengers, Leon Thomas, Stanley Turrentine and Miles Davis. This meant he was no ordinary musician. No. Lonnie Liston Smith was an innovator, who was determined to push musical boundaries to their limits and beyond. This is apparent on Astral Travelling, which I’ll tell you about.

Opening Astral Traveling is the title-track, which first featured on Pharaoh Saunders’ Thembi album. Lonnie’s Fender Rhodes sets the scene for a myriad of percussion. Above the languid, meandering arrangement sits the alto saxophone. It’s played with power, passion and control. When it drops out the Fender Rhodes and probing bass intermingle with the percussion. The percussion provides an exotic Eastern sound. It’s a case of East meets West on this beautiful, languid, mellow and spiritual opus. It showcases Lonnie’s unique brand of cosmic jazz.

A blistering, explosive dissonant saxophone and flourishes of piano combine as Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord unfolds. Meanwhile, percussion provides the perfect accompaniment to the piano. Together they provide flourishes of ethereal beauty. Especially when bells chime. As for the saxophone, it’s slow and soul searching. When it drops out, the piano and percussion take charge. Then later, bursts of frenzied saxophone make their presence felt. While waves of ethereal music unfold in waves, the husky saxophone is akin to an unburdening of the soul. The result is cathartic, beautiful and emotive. 

Rejuvenation sees Lonnie’s band join forces to create a track that’s dramatic and emotive. That’s the case from the opening bars. The rhythm section, piano and saxophone join forces. Lonnie boldly and flamboyantly plays the piano, while a bright, airy saxophone solo soars above the arrangement. It’s powered along by the rhythm section and percussion. However, it’s Lonnie’s piano and George’s saxophone that play starring roles. Everything else plays a supporting role. Lonnie and George seem to bring out the best in each other. Spurring each other on, they both reach new heights. Each produce virtuoso performances. It’s as if the other’s presence has lead to a Rejuvenation in their powers.

Slow and dramatic describes I Mani (Faith). Playing starring roles are flamboyant flourishes of Lonnie’s piano and heartachingly beautiful saxophone solo. They’re augmented by the rhythm section and percussion. Again, they’re playing supporting roles. Later, Lonnie plays a supporting role to tenor saxophonist George Barron. He unleashes a blistering, scorching, searing saxophone solo. Unleashing power, passion and emotion, George pushes the saxophone to its limit. Inspired, the rest of the band join in. What follows is a frenzied jam session. Having reached its dramatic, explosive crescendo, a calm descends. There’s a return to the spellbinding beauty of earlier. It’s augmented by a flamboyance and drama as Lonnie Liston and The Cosmic Echoes on what’s been a captivating performance.

In Search Of Truth has a much more tranquil and spiritual sound. Lonnie unleashes flourishes of piano while percussion and the rhythm section provide a slow, thoughtful accompaniment. George adds a sultry, soul searching saxophone solo. Quickly, it drops out, the piano and plucked bass asking a series of question. You can sense their frustration, that their questions aren’t being answered. As the track progresses, this frustration grows. Later, this frustration turns to a sense resignation that they’ll forever be In Search Of Truth. This results in thoughtful, cerebral track that’s still relevant today.

Aspirations closes Astral Travelling. It’s not just slow and serene, but melodic and thoughtful. Lonnie’s Fender Rhodes reverberates, producing a melancholy sound. Percussion accompanies him, adding to the already wistful sound. Space is left within the arrangement, allowing it to breath. Flourishes of Fender Rhodes add  a sense of drama to this poignant, spiritual opus where pathos is ever-present. 

Innovative, influential and way ahead of the musical curve, describes Lonnie Liston Smith. So does serene and spiritual. Proof of this is the music on Astral Travelling. It shows that Lonnie Liston Smith was way ahead of his time. Here was a musician determined to push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, beyond. That describes what Lonnie Liston Smith was trying to achieve. On Astral Travelling, he drew inspiration from all the jazz greats he’d worked with. Among them, were Pharaoh Saunders, Gato Barbieri, The Jazz Messengers, Leon Thomas, Stanley Turrentine and Miles Davis. He borrowed from each of these artists and the result was his unique brand of cosmic jazz. It’s gone on to influence several generations of musicians and music lovers. Despite this, Lonnie Liston Smith’s music wasn’t the huge success it deserved to be. 

With its fusion of avant garde, experimental, free jazz and orthodox jazz, Lonnie Liston Smith’s music never found the wider audience it deserved. Maybe the problem people didn’t understand  Lonnie Liston Smith’s music? That’s why his music has only enjoyed a cult following. He never enjoyed the critical acclaim and commercial success enjoyed that came John Coltrane and Miles Davis’ way. That’s a great shame, given the quality of  Lonnie Liston Smith’s back-catalogue.

Between 1973s Astral Travelling and 1976s Reflections Of A Golden Dream,  Lonnie Liston Smith released a quintet of albums for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions.  Lonnie Liston Smith and The Cosmic Echoes’ debut album was Astral Travelling, which was recently rereleased by BGP Records. It was a tantalising taste of what Lonnie Liston Smith was capable of. With his all-star band, Lonnie released a string of truly groundbreaking, genre-melting albums. No wonder. Lonnie was a a true innovator and jazz pioneer who pushed musical boundaries to their limits and beyond. The one that started it all of for Lonnie Liston Smith was Astral Travelling, a true cosmic jazz classic.



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