Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes - Astral Traveling (1973)

Lonnie Liston Smith was 32 when, in 1973, he finally got around to recording his first album as a leader, Astral Traveling. By that time, the pianist/keyboardist had a great deal of sideman experience under his belt, and this superb debut made it clear that former employers like Pharoah Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gato Barbieri, and Betty Carter had taught him well. One hears a lot of Sanders, John Coltrane, and McCoy Tyner influence on Astral Traveling; Smith obviously shares their passion for all things spiritual. Nonetheless, this LP leaves no doubt that the improviser is very much his own man and has a wealth of brilliant ideas of his own; thankfully, he has a cohesive band to help him carry them out. On Astral Traveling, Smith's 1973 edition of the Cosmic Echoes includes George Barron on soprano and tenor sax, Joe Beck on guitar, Cecil McBee on bass, David Lee Jr. on drums, James Mtume and Sonny Morgan on percussion, Badal Roy on Indian tabla drums, and Geeta Vashi on the Indian tamboura. An impressive lineup, and one that shows a great understanding of Smith's spiritual nature. Ninety-five percent of the time, Astral Traveling is serene and tranquil; but on "I Mani (Faith)," the unexpected interesting happens when Barron goes outside during his sax solo and gets into the type of dissonant, forceful screaming one would expect from Albert Ayler or late-period Coltrane. "I Mani (Faith)" has a hauntingly peaceful melody, but Barron's out-of-left-field solo makes it the most avant-garde track that Smith ever recorded as a leader. Produced by the late Bob Thiele -- an eclectic heavyweight who worked with everyone from Coltrane, Ayler, and Charles Mingus to Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong -- Astral Traveling is among Smith's most essential and rewarding albums. --- Alex Henderson

Lonnie Liston Smith was familiar to Bob Thiele through his role as the pianist in Pharoah Sanders’ group, but it wasn’t until Lonnie had become a member of Miles Davis’ band that Thiele decided it was time to sign him to his own deal. By this time Lonnie had been on the scene for the best part of a decade playing with Art Blakey and Roland Kirk. He had come into his own with Sanders but there was nothing in jazz to compare with being in the piano seat for Davis’ group. For his Flying Dutchman debut Lonnie went into the studio with George Barron on saxophone, Cecil McBee on bass and a host of percussionists including two Indian players. The sound was atypical of his later recordings in that it was a largely acoustic set – featuring electric piano but no synths – but it fitted in with Lonnie’s cosmic jazz philosophy. The title track set the scene for an album with a mellow, spacey feel that today would be called spiritual jazz. The album was an immediate success and led to a long term contract with Flying Dutchman. --- Dean Rudland

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