Cult Classic: Lonnie Liston Smith and The Echoes-Astral Travelling.

Sometimes, a record company proves to be the perfect fit for an  artist. That was the case with Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions which 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 Thiele had realised that often, large record companies aren’t the best environment for innovative and creative musicians. He realised that these musical mavericks didn’t thrive within such an orthodox environment because their creativity is restricted. This meant that they were unable to experiment and innovate like they would  like to.

That was why when Bob Thiele parted company with Impulse, who he had transformed into one of jazz’s pioneering labels, he founded Flying Dutchman Productions. This was the label that Lonnie Liston Smith and The Echoes signed to, and released a quintet of groundbreaking albums. Their debut was the cosmic jazz classic Astral Travelling, which  was the latest chapter in Lonnie Liston Smith’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 and members of The Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones often visited the Smith household. 

Growing up,  Lonnie Liston Smith inherited his father’s love of music and learned to play  piano, tuba and trumpet in High School and college. Next stop was Morgan State University.

Inspired by Trane, Bird and Miles Davis, Lonnie Liston Smith embarked upon a degree in musical education. Throughout his time at University, he 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 his musical eduction. Having completed his BSc in musical education at Morgan State University, Lonnie Liston Smith walked straight into a job.

On leaving Morgan State University, he 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 as had to be able to accompany a wide range of artists. For Lonnie Liston Smith this was the next stage in his musical educationAfter this he moved to the New York.

Having moved to  the Big Apple, he was luck enough to get a gig playing piano in Betty Carter’s band. This helped Lonnie Liston Smith get his name known in New York. Then in early 1965, Lonnie caught a break when he joined Roland Kirk’s band.

He made his recording debut on March 14th 1965 on Here Comes The Whistleman, which was recorded live in New York. However, Lonnie Liston Smith only played on the title-track, Making Love After Hours, Yesterdays and Step Right Up. Thenhe featured on Roland Kirk and Al Hibbler’s 1965 live album A Meeting Of The Times. This enhanced his reputation and after this, Lonnie Liston Smith joined one of jazz’s top bands.

Over the last few years, The Jazz Messengers had established a reputation for hiring young musicians looking to make a name for themselves. Lonnie Liston Smith joined in 1965 and shared the role with Mick Nock and Keith Jarrett. However, with The Jazz Messengers ever evolving lineup, he only played three in concerts. These three concerts just so happened to be at the legendary Village Vanguard. Despite that, the lack of gigs made this  frustrating and disappointing time for Lonnie Liston Smith. Luckily, he was rehired by Roland Kirk. 

He rejoined Roland Kirk’s band in time to play on his 1968 album Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith. This established his reputation as the go-to-guy for a pianist and it was the start of period where he worked with some of the most innovative and inventive jazz musicians. Especially when he 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, he decided to form a new band. Its music is best described as free jazz and musical boundaries were pushed to their limits and beyond. Recognising a fellow believer in free jazz, Pharaoh Saunders asked Lonnie Liston Smith to join his band and   went on to play on four of his finest albums.

This included Karma which was released in 1969. It was followed in 1970 with Jewels Of Thought and Summun Bukmun Umyun. Completing the quartet was 1971s Thembi which was another groundbreaking album.

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

One of these mavericks was Gato Barbieri who had just signed to Bob Thiele’s nascent label Flying Dutchman Productions. It was already establishing a reputation for providing musicians with an environment where innovative and creative musicians could thrive.

Lonnie Liston Smith  played on Argentinian saxophonist Gato Barbieri’s 1969 debut album The Third World. Bob Thiele’s next signing was Leon Thomas and he played on his debut album Spirits Known and Unknown. Soon, Lonnie Liston Smith was a regular at Flying Dutchman sessions.

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

He was still  a member of Gato Barbieri’s band when Miles Davis got in touch, and wanted Lonnie Liston Smith to join his band. This was too good an opportunity to turn down.

Having been one of the pioneers of fusion, Miles Davis music was starting to evolve and change direction again. He was experimenting with funk, and continuing to explore the possibilities of electronic instruments which  were the flavour of the month. However, he was doing this outside the studio environment. That’s why there are very few recordings of Lonnie Liston Smith playing alongside Miles Davis at that time. That came later, when the pair were reunited. Before that, Lonnie Liston Smith decided to move on and embark upon his solo career, and recorded his debut album Astral Travelling.

For Astral Travelling, Lonnie Liston Smith 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 were christened The Cosmic Echoes. 

When recording of Astral Travelling began, Lonnie Liston Smith 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. He was no ordinary musician and was an innovator, who was determined to push musical boundaries to their limits and beyond. This is apparent on Astral Travelling.

Opening Astral Traveling is the title-track, which first featured on Pharaoh Saunders’ Thembi album. Lonnie Liston Smith’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 which showcases Lonnie iston Smith’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 Liston Smith’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 iston Smith 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 the piano and George Barron’s saxophone that play starring roles. Everything else plays a supporting role. They seem to bring out the best in each other and both reach new heights producing virtuoso performances.

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 Liston Smith plays a supporting role to tenor saxophonist George Barron. He unleashes a blistering, scorching, searing saxophone solo. Unleashing power, passion and emotion, pushing 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 Barron 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 Liston Smith’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, where he drew inspiration from all the jazz greats he’d worked with.

This includes 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 that has gone on to influence several generations of musicians and music lovers. Despite this, Lonnie Liston Smith’s albums weren’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 and 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 outstanding albums for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Productions. His debut was Astral Travelling, a true cosmic jazz classic, which is a tantalising taste of what Lonnie Liston Smith was capable of and the perfect introduction to a groundbreaking and pioneering musician and one of music’s mavericks.

Cult Classic: Lonnie Liston Smith and The Echoes-Astral Travelling.


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