“On Thembi, that was the first time that I ever touched a Fender Rhodes electric piano. We got to the studio in California — Cecil McBee had to unpack his bass, the drummer had to set up his drums, Pharoah had to unpack all of his horns. Everybody had something to do, but the piano was just sitting there waiting. I saw this instrument sitting in the corner and I asked the engineer, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s a Fender Rhodes electric piano.’ I didn’t have anything to do, so I started messing with it, checking some of the buttons to see what I could do with different sounds. All of a sudden I started writing a song and everybody ran over and said, ‘What is that?’ “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just messing around.’ Pharoah said, ‘Man, we gotta record that. Whatcha gonna call it?’ “I’d been studying astral projections and it sounded like we were floating through space so I said let’s call it ‘Astral Traveling.’ That’s how I got introduced to the electric piano.”
There are a few Jazz artists that have a mystical sound, one that transcends the realm of a media-driven genre title, and one that can be defined as spiritual. One of those artists who’s mystical sound is truly one of a kind is keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, who on his 1973 LP Astral Traveling is the combination of an auditory out-of-body experience and a Hip Hop producers playground. With the graces of Jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, and many more, Lonnie Liston Smith has the freedom to do whatever he feels as a front man, and the result of his free-spirited musical style is a gift that he is able to share with his listeners. Lonnie Liston Smith played as a sideman to the before mentioned artists, and as a front man for the Cosmic Echoes, he still isn’t as prominent as most front men. While Liston composed each track, it is the tenor and soprano saxophone of George Barron that plays a lot of the melodies, while the serenity of Smith is more of an accompaniment. In the latter part of the 70’s, recordings from Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes would occasionally contain vocals, which were mostly sung by Lonnie’s brother Donald, who also played flute. Also, let’s not forget that the percussion on Astral Traveling is graced by the great James Mtume
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If you were to give Astral Traveling the injustice of a sub-genre, you may want to label it as Free Jazz, or Abstract Jazz in the same vein as Miles or Pharoah Sanders, but what makes Lonnie Liston Smith different is that the instrumentation of the Fender Rhodes electric piano gives Smith’s sound such a warm melody, where other instrumentations and songs that fall into the abstract category tend to be a bit uncontrolled. As mentioned before, the sounds that are expelled from these recordings have beat makers drooling, as you can have you’re smooth Hip Hop instrumental manufactured in minutes, as all you need is any section of any of these songs on a loop, and add some drums and a bass line, and you will have yourself a certified classic. But beyond the Hip Hop appreciation of this particular album, it is certainly a unique sound, and one that can only be defined as Lonnie Liston Smith.
Written by: @Haylow