As I write this (though I confess that I’m typing it a couple of days later), I’m sitting at a quiet café patio table in the shade by myself, sipping on an iced coffee. It’s a warm, late spring, blue sky kinda day and I was planning on listening to Lonnie Liston Smith’s 1973 album Astral Traveling on headphones while I wrote something about it. I bought a CD copy of it a week ago and it’s been a soothing backdrop to a hectic few days. However, I’m reluctant to don said headphones and mask the ambient audio atmosphere. The natural music of birds and breeze, distant voices, a far off dog bark. The “hissing of summer lawns” as it were.
In a way, Astral Traveling is evocative like that aural landscape too, though. “Spiritual jazz”, “cosmic jazz”, music to be mellow to (“From K-Tel: 10 Smooth Silky Sounds for Those Special Moments!”). Yet, it’s not light music, not bargain bin muzak – there’s a soulfulness and depth in these six tracks (plus four alternate takes on the re-release) and dynamic musical interplay and connectivity between the musicians. It’s a funky sorta mellow.
This was pianist Smith’s first album as a leader, though he’d been on the scene since the early 60s, playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Art Blakey and Miles Davis. It was with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders that Smith really flourished though. It’s Sanders’ Thembi from 1971 where the title track of Astral Traveling made its debut. The band was getting set up in the studio, Smith recalled in a later interview, and:
“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.” (“Cosmic Jazzman”, by Jim Newson, Portfolio Weekly)
Sanders encouraged Smith to pursue his own path, so he took the trippy textures and world music influences in Sanders’ albums and ran with it. Well, maybe “ran” is too active a word. What he did was delve deeper into the atmospheric and contemplative parts of the sound, mostly stripping away the skronking, oft-times jarring aspects of Sanders’ sax style.
Joining Smith as his Cosmic Echoes band were Joe Beck on guitar, Cecil McBee on bass, David Lee Jr. on drums, along with George Barron on saxophones and Geeta Vashi on tamboura. Rounding things out on the percussion-rich recordings were Badal Roy playing tabla and Sonriy Morgan and James Mtume on congas and other percussion. Importantly, Smith doesn’t dominate the proceedings. Each musician is given plenty of room and the whole effect is like a well-oiled karmic machine.
You picture a lot of incense being burned during these recording sessions (and maybe other things too…) It’s, like, deep man. I’m not making fun, here, though – these guys really did access some inner dimensions on their sonic explorations and it all holds up well still. You really don’t hear anybody making this kind of music anymore.
The most energetic cut is “Rejuvenation“, which is bright, upbeat and melodious. The only place on the album where an edge creeps in (kind of like the hornet at the other end of my café table right now gnawing on the edge of the wood) is on “I Mani (Faith)” when Barron’s sax takes off on a Sanders-esque flight, in a free-form freak-out. Yet, it all comes back down to the mellow groove by the end of the track and we’re all the better for the unexpected leap into the audio unknown, which acts as a counterpoint to the rest of the album.
Lonnie Liston Smith did more albums with his Cosmic Echoes, and under his own name (and is still active). Unfortunately, for my tastes (and I’ve really only heard some of his other 70s work so far) his music became much more slick and pop/R&B influenced as the decade wore on. He seemed to move away from that spiritual, adventurous style into stuff you might find on a “music for lovers” compilation – lots of sunsets and silhouetted couples holding hands on the beach. For the smooth jazz genre, it’s good, but…is quite different and lacking a lot of the substance of his earlier work like Astral Traveling.
Throughout that decade, though, no matter what kind of music he was playing, Smith had a thing for knit hats.
I think they must have helped him hold all that music in his head, or maybe they helped focus the echoes of the cosmos, acting as an antenna for him to channel those celestial sounds. Those sounds of space, of earth, of nature, of the vast interior landscape. Music akin to that made by the fluffy tree pollen blowing around me in the breeze now like so many summer snowflakes, each making its own miniscule sound-air vibration as it lifts and floats, lifts and floats. I can dig it, man.