“It Sounds Like We’re Floating”: A Conversation with Lonnie Liston Smith

As jazz became a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment in the mid-1960s and soaked up elements of soul, funk and psychedelia throughout the 70s, the hands of Lonnie Liston Smith wove a common thread across some of the greatest recordings of the era. Unobtrusive, deep in the pocket, and always in sync with its surroundings, his work on the acoustic piano and later, the Fender Rhodes, elevated recordings by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the fertile late-’60s Impulse LPs of Pharoah Sanders, a wealth of Flying Dutchman sessions across the ’70s, and of course, his own staggering catalog of albums with his band, the Cosmic Echoes.

Ironically, it’s his brief but fruitful time with Miles Davis that’s most often lost in the shuffle. From his first session in June of 1972 that produced more than half of the material for On the Corner through a bi-coastal US tour in the spring of 1973, Smith was a working member of Miles’ band, albeit behind an instrument with which he was largely unfamiliar – the Yamaha YC-45D organ. Still, what Lonnie Liston Smith brought to Miles was the same “cosmic” sensibility that imbues everything he touches.

Shortly after sharing a recording of the band’s April 5, 1973 performance in Seattle, Lonnie Liston Smith contacted me with a simple message: “…I have to tell you the story of what Miles said to me one day when I first met him.” Not long after, I was on the phone with the Astral Traveler himself. Here is what he shared.

On the Fender Rhodes

The first time I played the Fender Rhodes electric piano was when Pharoah Sanders and I were recording Thembi in California. Up until that time I only played the grand piano. Everybody’s unpacking. Pharoah’s unpacking his horn and Cecil McBee’s unpacking the bass, Clifford Jarvis is setting up the drums. Well, you know, you don’t have to set up the grand piano so I saw this instrument in the corner and asked the engineer what it was, and he said, “that’s the Fender Rhodes.”

So I walked over, start messing with the knobs, start playing, and the Creator just gave me this song and everybody ran over – Pharoah, the engineer, and they said, “Oh man, that’s beautiful. We gotta record this right now – what are you gonna call it?” I was studying astral projection where you know, you leave your body and float all over the world.

So I said “it sounds like we’re floating, let’s call it ‘Astral Traveling’”

On meeting Miles Davis

When I first met Miles he was in the recording studio doing On the Corner. I’d never met him and I walk into the studio and see three keyboards and I said “Uh-oh…”. I just didn’t know what to do. And there was Herbie Hancock and another young keyboardist (Harold Williams). So I’m standing up against the wall and Miles walks over and says, “What the “bleep” you waitin’ on?” 

I didn’t realize we’re all three supposed to be playing at the same time; I’d never done anything like that. So now I’m playing the keyboards, Herbie’s playing and the other young man is playing and you’ve got to really listen because we can’t play the same thing.

So we do the date, then I get a call from Miles saying “Come join the band on the road.”

On joining Miles’ live band

I go over to Miles’ house (to rehearse), and I’m looking for the electric piano thinking “Yeah, I’m gonna really get into it.” Because Herbie played the Fender Rhodes with Miles, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul… I don’t see the Fender Rhodes so I ask Miles where it’s at and he says “Oh no, I’m tired of that. I want you to play THAT.” The Japanese had just given him this Yamaha electric organ, but you know, not like a Jimmy Smith B3 organ. I said, “Miles, I never played that….” and he said, “That’s great!”

I ask him if I can take it home to practice and Miles says “No, when we get on stage, you’ll figure it out.”

So I have to learn this instrument and create at the same time and it works! I had to figure out something! I had to be me and that’s what he wanted. Miles was one of the few leaders who’d get mad if you didn’t come up with something new and creative every night. I was putting that space in there, textures, and it was always new and interesting to me because it was a different instrument and a different sound than what I was used to. 

And then the band, we had Badal Roy from India, he’s playing tablas, we had sitar and of course, Pete Cosey, he’s fantastic. Al Foster, Michael who had just come out of Motown, Liebman, Mtume… He (Miles) had all of this international instrumentation and it all came together. You just had all the music genres represented.

On Miles & space

When Pharoah Sanders and I were together we were just really creative. You start and then you just keep extending and growing and stretching out as far as you can.

But the thing I would always tell Pharoah was “Let’s bring it back, you know, we can’t leave the people out there in space!”

Miles was trying to do that in his way. Before that period all the songs had chord changes and you knew what was coming next but with On the Corner, Bitches Brew and all that, it was all experimentation. It was just another concept of space. 

When I started with Pharoah or with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Max Roach, they all had certain tunes that they did. Before that, Miles would play “Around Midnight,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “All of You”. But then after a certain point, you know, you got more creative and more adventurous and you left all those standards at home. 

We were all experimenting and searching, but at the same time you have to really listen to what’s going on. That was Miles’ way of dealing with space. It was different from what Sun Ra did, or what Pharoah and I did, but it was his way of dealing with it. Miles was always searching. A lot of people got upset when Miles went into that electric period, but when I got into the band, I was listening and saying “Wow. Miles is still playing the same way but all the rhythms and instrumentation has changed around him.” So he was working and playing around what everybody else was doing during the electric period, but he was still playing that beautiful Miles. A few people just got thrown off. 

When Pharoah, Leon Thomas and I were together, we’d just start with a sound, or “Creator Has a Master Plan”, something like that; you start and you just keep building. So Miles did it in another way, although he never talked about it. Miles would really just start playing – and that’s where the space comes in – and he would just start building on it. He’d just start with a sound, then maybe Pete would do something, then Mtume would do something and we’d start building and it just got to that point. 

On leaving Miles

Around this time, Bob Theile (founder of Impulse! and Flying Dutchman Records) tells me “People are talking about you; it’s time to do your own record”. So I did a record called Astral Traveling which was my first record, and I’m thinking I’ll do the record and go back to join Miles back on tour. Months and months later, I get a call from Bob saying “Lonnie, you’ve got to put a band together.” And I said “Man, I’m not leaving Miles” but he says “No, you’ve gotta support your record”

I told Miles the story and he just laughed and said, “Why did you do the record then?” Well I just wanted to make a record!

So that’s why I didn’t stay as long as I wanted to; I had to put my own band together. But you know, everyone who leaves Miles’ band forms their own group because Miles makes you stronger. 

When you got with Miles, that was it. Before that I worked with Art Blakey, the Jazz Messengers, Max Roach, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, all kinds of singers, Betty Carter, Joe Williams… but when you got with Miles, that was it. 

Just hanging out with Miles, being with him on tour, he was very unique. He was always honest and candid, onstage and offstage. Can you imagine, he went all the way back to Charlie Parker, Lester Young; He was just a walking history of American music. 

On Miles’ influences

But a lot of people don’t realize a lot of that (electric) sound came from Tony Williams Lifetime. Because when Miles heard that he said “Oh, ok, … Bitches Brew”. Tony was doing all that stuff before Weather Report, Mahavishnu, Return to Forever. Tony Williams Lifetime, that was the one.

But you know, Miles heard Tony when he was what, 16, 17… and the rest is history.

Miles would show up at any concert that you’d be playing. He was aware of everything that was going on. He used to talk about Jimi Hendrix all the time; he told me Hendrix was a great jazz player but he doesn’t know it yet. 

He and Jimi were getting ready to go in the studio, but you know, Jimi departed. Can you imagine what kind of record that would have turned out to be?

Miles always knew when the new people arrived. He was a great listener and he knows. He can hear a young player and know they’re a future star. 

Just like when I heard Marcus Miller, when he was about 18, 19 years old. I said “This boy’s got it”. So that’s when I took him into the studio and did the record Loveland. Years later Miles called and asked me about Marcus Miller and I got all excited. I said, “Oh man, Miles that’s fantastic. You found your twin.”

He said to me “Oh there you go cosmic again” and he slapped the phone down, but of course, you know, he calls you right back. 

But Miles was a Gemini, and Marcus Miller was a Gemini and you know, look what happened. He and Marcus hooked up, you’ve got Tutu and he and Marcus understood each other right away. 

On creation & harmony

When I did Expansions I remember Miles had been playing with all these pedals hooked up to his trumpet. So I just hooked up the same pedals up to the electric piano and that’s where I came up with the cosmic sound, and Expansions just took off. I mean it took off worldwide. 

I wanted all my music to be eternal, you know. You’ll hear it today, and even though we recorded it many years ago it still sounds fresh. Like we recorded it yesterday. You know, the sun, moon and stars and you can’t begin to count the billions of years they’ve been here but it’s fresh and beautiful every day and every night. So I wanted the music to be the same way. That’s what you want in art.

“Expansions” was the first time I wrote lyrics because you know, all before that every song you heard was “…my baby left me” or “…cryin’ the blues”.  So I said, well, let me give the people some expansive, hopeful, positive lyrics. Expand your mind so we can have a vision of a new world where the whole world will work in harmony and peace. Just like now, coming out of this crazy pandemic. It seems like that’s hard to do, but you know, you have to keep trying.

I mean, without music we’d be in trouble. The whole world would be in trouble. 

Lonnie Liston Smith, June 16, 2021