Lonnie Liston Smith on 'Jazz is Dead 17' and life in harmony
The Richmond jazz legend's collaboration with producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge is available now.
Richmond’s own Lonnie Liston Smith has been a key figure in jazz history for over fifty years. After starting his career as a sideman with artists like Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders, and Gato Barbieri, Smith and his own group The Cosmic Echoes went on to shape the sound of 1970s jazz-funk. Now, he’s teamed up with producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Adrian Younge to innovate again with a new release: Jazz is Dead 17.
Note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie Parnell: Jazz is Dead 17 is your first album release in 25 years. What was it like getting back in the studio?
LLS: That was a very interesting situation. I get a call from LA, and the representative of Jazz is Dead was named Drew. So he was telling me, “We just recorded Gary Bartz, we just recorded Roy Ayers, and we just recorded Jean Carne. So we want to record you.” And I said OK.
So I go in, and they’ve got an all-‘70s studio. Same equipment, same kind of board, analog everything. Now, I only see a bass player and a drummer. And they said, “We have these ideas and little motifs, and we want you to develop them and just play, and then when you leave, we’ll add all kinds of things to it.” And I said, “Well, I’ve never recorded this way before.”
Over 25 years ago, I got a call from EMI Records saying they were doing a project with Guru — it was Guru Jazzmatazz [Vol.1], the first one. And they said they were going to use a different jazz artist on each song, sort of like [Jazz is Dead]. They had this track, and they wanted me to listen to the track and just play and improvise. 25 years later, I’m getting calls from all over the world saying that Guru Jazzmatazz is a classic. What happens is the younger generation hear the samples, and then they discover us.
It's such an uplifting album, both in these musical builds throughout and the concepts that are attached to them: love, happiness, gratitude. How is that on your mind in this process?
You know, after I left, I used to call back and say, “Now remember, I'm cosmic.” I used to mess with them. So they came up with great titles.
Years ago, after I left Miles Davis, I did Expansions, and I always had titles like Expansions, Visions of a New World. Because, you know, we’re trying to bring peace and harmony to the whole world.
What's your philosophy when it comes to making music?
Traveling all over the world, you find out that music is a universal language. You can play with musicians from different countries, and you can't speak to each other verbally, because it's different languages. But once the music starts, everyone automatically understands. Anyone might speak a different language, but they all understand the music. So music can heal you. That's what I'm trying to stress in the music.
You can cross the language barriers and get at someone's soul that way.
You're touching their heart and soul. And that's what you want to do. You know, if you can touch the heart and soul, you got them. That's the key to the universe. I remember when I was working with Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk came down to hang out with Art. But Monk was talking to all the musicians, and he said each musician has to find his own sound.
When you hear Miles, you say “that’s Miles,” or when you hear Trane, you say “that’s Trane” — you can tell by the sound. You have to develop your own sound like writers have to develop their own voice — that’s the real you. That's why I’m trying to touch that heart and soul with music, so that you can discover who you are. That’s what we really need.
Because, you know, the outside world has got all these bells and whistles and illusions, drawing you everywhere, or distracting you, really. So you have to really reflect and go inside of you. You do it through meditation, you can do it that way, or just sit down and be quiet.
The whole universe is inside of you. But what happens is you always get distracted by what's going on in the outer world. And if you keep doing that, it's hard to discover yourself.
Do you have an ongoing meditation practice today?
A lot of times I just sit at the piano. That automatically takes me into a point of meditation — I start playing things. I remember when Wayne Shorter passed, I went to the Fake Books. I took one of Shorter’s songs. I’d never played it, I just saw it, and I thought “Wow.”
[plays the opening riff to ‘Infant Eyes’ by Wayne Shorter on piano]
You know, and I just thought, “I’ve never played that before.” So I sat down at the piano and started to interpret it the way I hear it.
You grew up in Richmond in a musical family, and you still live here. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
My father was with a very famous gospel group called The Harmonizing Four. And they went all over the world and performed. And as a little kid, I'm meeting all these people — the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys [of Alabama]. I think Sam Cooke came through with the Soul Stirrers. They used to have big shows at The Mosque [now the Altria Theatre]. Every year they would have a big show where all the groups would come in.
Actually, when I was a little kid I heard Rosetta Tharpe, because she moved to Richmond. And I said, “Wow, she's really playing guitar a little bit different.” So then when I get to London, all the rock groups, I'm talking to them, and they’re saying they call Rosetta Tharpe the godmother of rock 'n' roll. I just took all these things for granted, because the music was in the house all the time. And that's all we did.
I have two younger brothers. The middle brother, Ray Smith, had a big hit. He started a group called the Jarmels here in Richmond, and they had a big hit called “A Little Bit of Soap.” And then of course, you've heard my younger brother Donald. He sang on Expansions, a lot of the records that I did. Donald and Ray inherited my father's beautiful tenor voice, and I could only sing the bass. So in a way, I guess I’m singing through the piano.
When it comes to the music scene, in your mind, what makes Richmond unique?
You know, Virginia should have a hall of fame, because a lot of great musicians came out of Virginia: Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth Brown, Patsy Cline. I mean, you can just keep going. Wah Wah Watson — I didn't realize he was from Richmond. There's a lot of talent here. And it all starts with the gospel — it came out of the church. And then of course, the blues.
At one time, 2nd Street, man. All the great artists used to come through and perform at The Hippodrome — it was like The Apollo in New York. I remember one time I was on tour, doing all-stars. And Billy Eckstine was part of the tour.
He heard me in the hall one day talking to his musical director, saying "I’m from Richmond" in front of his dressing room. And he ran out of the room when he [heard] “Richmond, Virginia,” and he said “2 Street!” So he started calling me 2 Street — him and Sarah Vaughn used to perform there. After that, me and Billy Eckstine were like brothers. So Richmond has a great musical history.
Maybe one day, we’ll have a hall of fame or something.
Jazz is Dead 17, featuring Lonnie Liston Smith, is available now.