Lonnie Liston Smith (born Dec. 28, 1940) is an American jazz-funk keyboardist, composer, arranger, and band-leader who has been musically active since the early 1960s. His early career included stints with Max Roach, Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Following an early ’70s gig with Gato Barbieri, Smith formed the Cosmic Echoes, a spiritual jazz-funk-soul ensemble that released six albums between 1973 and 1977 on Flying Dutchman/RCA.
Lonnie Liston Smith Jr. was born into a musical family in Richmond, Va., on December 28, 1940. His father sang in The Harmonizing Four, a revolving-door gospel quartet that recorded for Decca. Visitors to the Smith family home during Lonnie’s childhood included fellow gospel groups the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers (featuring a pre-fame Sam Cooke).
Inspired by jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, Smith studied piano, trumpet, and tuba in high school. In 1961, he earned a BS in music education from Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Before graduating, he made inroads as a pianist and vocalist on the Baltimore nightclub scene, where he played alongside fellow up-and-comers Gary Bartz and Grachan Moncur. At the famed Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Ave., he backed numerous jazz vocalists, including Ethel Ennis.
In 1963, Smith moved to New York City and served as pianist for jazz singer Betty Carter. On March 14, 1965, he played a live date with multi-reedist Roland Kirk, as documented on the 1967 Atlantic release Here Comes The Whistleman. An additional track from that gig, “Dream,” appears as an outlier on A Meeting of the Times, the 1972 joint release by Kirk and Al Hibbler.
Between November 1965 and April 1966, Smith did an unrecorded stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. After a series of engagements at the Five Spot and the Village Vanguard, he cleared way for newcomer Chick Corea.
In 1967, Smith backed Kirk on the Verve release Now Please Don’t You Cry, Beautiful Edith, followed by an unrecorded stint behind drummer Max Roach. The following year, Smith began a three-year stint in the ensemble of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who was fusing free-form with strands of world music, a style soon dubbed “spiritual jazz.”
During 1969, Smith played on recordings by Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri (The Third World), vocalist Leon Thomas (Spirits Known and Unknown), and the Sanders titles Karma and Izipho Zam (released in 1973). Smith then played on the 1970/71 Sanders titles Jewels of Thought and Thembi, which marked his first use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
During group rehearsals for Thembi, as he first improvised on the Rhodes, he conceived a pattern that later developed into “Astral Traveling,” inspired by his interest in astral projections.
In 1971, Smith commenced a two-year stint with Barbieri, playing on the albums Fenix (1971), El Pampero (1972), and the 1973 recordings Bolivia and Under Fire, titles that chart the saxist’s move toward Latin jazz.
While still with Barbieri, Smith partook in numerous sessions with Miles Davis, playing on his 1972 release On the Corner and the track “Ife,” included on the multi-source 1974 double-album Big Fun. Davis assigned Smith to the organ for these sessions, forcing him to master the instrument with little notice.
Ready to lead his own ensemble, Smith formed Cosmic Echoes in 1973. The original lineup featured guitarist Joe Beck, bassist Cecil McBee (a fellow Pharoah alumnus), tamboura player Geeta Vashi, drummer David Lee, Jr., and percussionists James Mtume, Sonny Morgan, and Badal Roy.
- Astral Traveling (1973)
- Cosmic Funk (1974)
- Expansions (1975)
- Visions Of A New World (1975)
- Reflections Of A Golden Dream (1976)
- Live! (1977)
- Renaissance (1977)
- Loveland (1978)
- Exotic Mysteries (1978)
- A Song For The Children (1979)
- Love Is the Answer (1980)
- Dreams Of Tomorrow (1983)
- Silhouettes (1984)
- Rejuvenation (1985)
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