‘People Call Me The Godfather Of Fusion’: The Return Of Jazz-Funk Keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith

Lonnie Liston Smith

He has worked with Miles Davis, been sampled by Jay-Z, and has now made his first album in 25 years. He explains how going on TikTok helped him rediscover his cosmic keyboard sound


Over the last 60 years, keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith has made an artform out of countering some of jazz music’s loudest heavyweights with a soft, sensuous sound. His is the gently radiating electric piano or undulating organ backing bandmates including Miles Davis, as well as the the hard-blowing free-jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and energetic multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

As a bandleader since the 1970s, Smith has explored spiritual themes with dancefloor grooves and free-flowing improvisations, popularising what would come to be known as jazz-funk fusion. “People have called me the godfather of fusion, or the creator of the cosmic sound,” Smith says. “I was just trying to play a universal music – something that would speak to everyone.”

His music has continued to cross genre boundaries in the decades since. Smith’s records have been sampled heavily by Jay-Z, Stetsasonic and Mary J Blige, while Smith himself collaborated on rapper Guru’s 1993 cult jazz-rap record, Jazzmatazz, Vol 1. The database WhoSampled estimates that his work has been used in 395 tracks.

Now 82 and speaking from his home in Richmond, Virginia, Smith is as laid-back in person as his sound suggests. Twenty-five years after the release of his last album, the synth-driven Transformation, Smith is back with a record of original compositions on the label Jazz Is Dead. Featuring nine tracks, JID017 marks Smith’s return to the electric Fender Rhodes piano that shaped his 70s sound, and was conceived in collaboration with the label’s co-founders and producers, Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

“They enticed me back to the studio,” Smith says. “The right opportunity hadn’t come up for me to make another record these past years until Adrian and Ali called and flew me out to their studio in California. It was like stepping back in time – as soon as I saw the Rhodes, I started playing.”

It is an experience that harks back to when Smith first encountered the Rhodes piano while working on Sanders’ 1971 record Thembi. “I walked into the studio and everyone was busy setting up, but since I played the grand piano, I had nothing to do,” he says. “I spotted this keyboard and asked the engineer what it was. He told me it was an electric piano and I started playing around on it until this beautiful sound came out. Pharoah said we had to record it.” The resulting composition, Astral Traveling, is one of Smith and Sanders’ most well-known, combining the wafting vibrato of the Rhodes with Sanders’ keening soprano saxophone.

Smith grew up in a musical household in Richmond – his father was a member of gospel group the Harmonizing Four and the soul singer Sam Cooke and pioneering guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe were among their musical guests. After picking up the piano and tuba in high school, Smith was indoctrinated into jazz via the saxophonist Charlie Parker and began gigging in New York. With his credits building in the early 70s, he got the call from Miles Davis. “I went to the studio and there’s three keyboards, with Herbie Hancock sitting by one,” Smith says. “I’d never met Miles before and I thought he wanted us to play separately, but he made us play together. It was intense!”

Smith was called back to join the touring band following the release of the album Davis was recording, 1972’s On the Corner. “This time, I went to Miles’s house and I was looking for the Rhodes, but he told me he was tired of that sound. He wanted me to play something else,” Smith says. That instrument was an electric organ – another piece of hardware he had never seen before. “I told Miles I’d take it home to practise but he said: ‘No, when we’re doing a concert, you’ll get it together,’” Smith laughs. “That’s just the way he was; he wanted you to create spontaneously. I had to learn everything on stage, but it made us all the better for it.”

When he returned to the studio with Younge and Muhammad in 2020, Smith was free to choose his instruments. The record consists of jam sessions between the trio and drummer Greg Paul, stitched together with new additions in post-production. “When I left town they started adding things, like vocals [from singer Loren Oden], percussion and other sounds,” Smith says. “It’s like a totally new record, but I dig it. It feels like the 70s, with all its freedom.”

Why was the 1970s such a pivotal time? “Everyone was experimenting. 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 says. “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.”

These days, books have been supplanted by a phone screen when it comes to Smith’s new sources of discovery. “I’m on TikTok and I’m uncovering so much music,” he says. “I don’t put up any videos but I watch what other people are doing. It’s like what Miles and Pharoah taught me – you have to keep growing and searching for what is new, you can’t just stay in what was. As long as the music comes from your heart, that is what is important.”

The new album, JID017, is out now.