June 14, 2024

A Conversation With
LONNIE LISTON SMITH
by Sidney Bechet-Mandela

With the debut release from his new record label called Loveland, Lonnie Liston Smith joins the growing list of jazz musicians who have started their own record company. The new album from the legendary keyboardist is called “Transformation,” His brother, Donald, the flautist and vocalist from Smith’s 70;s jazz group, the Cosmic Echoes, is featured.

From the 40’s with Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie and their respective companies, Debut Records and Dee Gee Records, up to the present with Lee Ritenour’s i.e. music and Herbie Hancock’s brand new self-titled imprint, control has been the dominating reason why jazz musicians get into the record business.

. “With a lot of record labels, you have to do a record and then take it to them to see if they like it, Smith said by phone from his Richmond, Virginia home. “I thought instead of going through all of that, just put out a good record. I know my music, and I know what I want.

“Most of the music today is over produced,” Smith continued, ” but back in the beginning when the music was really happening in the 70’s, we went right in the studio and a lot of time we’d write right in the studio. That’s the way we did “Expansions,” and it just took off.”

Even before Lonnie Liston Smith became one of the few jazzmen from the 70’s to earn a gold album with the 1975 classic “Expansions,” he was part of some historical jazz recordings. His years with Miles Davis are documented on the albums “On The Corner” and “Big Fun,” and he came to national attention when he played in the late 60’s bands of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Smith was the pianist on Sanders’ classic “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” and he wrote the hit song Astral Traveling on the Sanders album “Thembi,”

” “Astral Traveling” is a good example,” Smith said railing on about the record companies of today. “That was the first time I’d ever touch a Fender Rhodes electric piano. I saw this thing in the studio and I didn’t even know what it was. I just went over there messing around, and everybody ran over there and said ‘man what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m just making up this song. They said man, we’ve got to do that. At that time, I was studying astral projection, so I called it “Astral Traveling”.

“And look at some of the other jazz hits from those days,” said Smith, ” Grover Washington’s “Mister Magic,” Ramsey Lewis’ “Sun Goddess,” and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” there were no big time producers that were assigned to them, people just went in the studio and did what was coming from the heart.”

Airplay, or the lack of it, is another reason Smith wanted to have his own record company. Like many contemporary jazz stars of the 70’s, Smith still tours the world extensively, partly because touring is the only chance to introduce new music to different markets. What passes as jazz radio today woefully ignores the electric pioneers from the 70’s.

While some of Smith’s Columbia Records recordings from the 80’s are in light rotation on some smooth jazz stations around the country, his two albums from the 90’s “Love Goddess” (featuring one of the last recorded performances of the late Phyliss Hyman) and Magic Lady, are ignored.

“This time out, a radio consultant was hired,” Smith said. “In smooth jazz radio, there are a lot of consultants who program stations. I thought that was the program director job, but they’re like the middle man.”

On “Transformation,” the consultant had Smith go back into the studio and shortened the length of his tunes to improve his chances of getting on-air. He also re-recorded two of his popular songs for this album, “Quiet Moments,” and “A Chance For Peace(Give Peace A Chance.)”

The spacey, ethereal and spiritual quality that has always been a part of Lonnie Liston Smith’s music is still quite evident. He finds it ludicrous that there are people who doubted his sincerity in some of the messages in his music. The veteran musician said a good diet and clean life along with a healthy body and mind has always added up to the positive spiritual life that he leads today and always have.

“That’s another reason I started my own company, ” Smith concluded. “I talked to some rappers who sampled my music, and they said ,’we do clean rap and then we take it to the record companies and they say, no that’s too clean.’ No one can say that to me now. I will always keep that spiritual message in the music. That’s what’s going to save this whole world and everybody in it.”

For more information visit the official Lonnie Liston Smith Web Site at  Loveland Records.

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