Listening session deep dive: Lonnie Liston Smith’s ‘Expansions’

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Lonnie Liston Smith

Join us 2-5pm at In Sheep’s Clothing NYC for a listening session dedicated to jazz-funk classics.

For a long time, “fusion” was a dirty word in jazz circles, one spat out with a particular venom among both traditionalists and the avant grade. Dismissed for its over reliance on chops and musicianship at the expense of emotiveness and nuance, mid-1970s fusion mixed funk, jazz, rock, soul and a little too much flute to create a sound that was gymnastic and prone to peacocking.

And then there’s keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, aka the Cosmic Prince, whose work in the mid-1970s was a wondrous funk-jazz fusion minus the narcissism, one borne of birthright: His father was a member of the touring gospel vocal group the Harmonizing Four. As such, the Smith household hosted the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds and other harmony groups at their residence.

On Monday, Oct. 2, ISC NYC will host its weekly dedicated listening session. From 2-5 pm, we’ll be playing sides from eight jazz-funk classics.

“I’ve been writing about songs about world peace for more than 45 years. Now, I have not heard from the Nobel Peace Prize people yet,” Smith said in a 2017 interview with Jayquan. Yet.

Fusion, jazz funk and soul jazz form a Venn diagram of confusion. Where does one sphere end and the next begin? Whatever the answer, the product on Expansions converges to create a smoky spirituality, one whose sanctuary was in cigarette-stained clubs – houses of alternate worship. This record grooves. It glides through bars as if slathered with cocoa butter.

“You study these philosophies, and everybody is saying the same thing: Peace, love, happiness, harmony, world peace,” Smith told Jayquan. “And you say, ‘What’s the problem? Why we can’t all get along? We’re fighting.’ And that’s why I wrote Expansions. Expand your mind.”

“Everyone was experimenting,” Smith told the Guardian in May. “There was a bookstore in New York called Wisner’s that you would walk into and see John Coltrane or Sun Ra studying texts on religions and philosophies,” Smith said. “I wrote Expansions because I was studying spirituality and I realised that everyone wants the same thing: peace, love and harmony. I wanted to put that into the feel of the music itself.”

Released in 1974, Expansions was the third album that Smith made with his band the Cosmic Echoes. The lineup:

Lonnie Liston Smith – piano, electric piano, electronic keyboard textures
Donald Smith − flute, vocals, vocal textures
Dave Hubbard − soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, alto flute (tracks 2-4, 6 & 7)
Cecil McBee − bass
Art Gore − drums
Michael Carvin − percussion, clavinet, drums (tracks 1, 2 & 4, 6 & 7)
Leopoldo Fleming − bongos, percussion (tracks 1-4, 6 & 7)
Lawrence Killian − congas, percussion (tracks 1-4, 6 & 7)

Expansions was also Smith’s third album for Flying Dutchman, the US label owned and run by jazz producer Bob Thiele. Sonically, the record was the result of Smith observing Miles Davis filtering his horn through a bunch of effects pedals. “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.”

In a career-spanning interview with Matthew Richie for Passion of the Weiss a few months back, Smith was asked about working with Miles Davis in the early 1970s, when the trumpeter was exploring groove-driven jazz rock.

“Miles had a tabla player from India, guitars from all over, he had congas – you want the music to be universal,” he said.” Every country has a different rhythm, beat pattern, but you can still relate to it and create on whatever is presented to you. I always wanted to present that universal music, that universal sound to the world.”

On Monday afternoon at ISC in New York, we’ll be placing the needle on a series of jazz funk classics, including Expansions. See the roster below.

Noel McGhie & Space Spies – Noel McGee & Space Spies
Pleasure – Joyous
Bobby Hutcherson & Harold Land – San Francisco
Donald Byrd – Places and Spaces
Bobbi Humphrey – Blacks and Blues
Johnny Hammond – Gears
John Carroll Kirby – Septet
Lonnie Liston Smith – Expansions

When: Oct. 2, 2-5 p.m.
Where: In Sheep’s Clothing NYC, 350 Hudson St. (enter on King)

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