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Far-Out Fusion

A fusion jazzman from the '60s finds himself part of the hip-hop movement.

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osmic keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith has many incarnations: rock-solid sideman, founding father of fusion, funk and acid jazz, bottomless font of hip-hop samples. He also happens to be a Richmond resident. Smith makes a rare hometown appearance to benefit the Richmond Jazz Society at the Canal Club on Tuesday, Dec. 12.

The son of a professional gospel singer, Smith's specialty is spiritual music constructed on a foundation of groove. His career traces the highlights of jazz in the '60s and early '70s, starting in the hard-bop academy of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, moving on to support iconoclasts like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Betty Carter, and to anchor the blustering frenzy of late-Coltrane collaborator Pharoah Sanders. By the early '70s he was playing in Miles Davis' post-"Bitches Brew" fusion ensemble.

"I really wanted to play Fender Rhodes, like Herbie [Hancock]," Smith remembers, "but Miles put me on the Yamaha electric organ."

It was a first-rate band, although Davis' musical explorations may have grown too abstract and complex for the young rock audiences drawn to John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra or Chick Corea's Return to Forever.

"He was kind of upset," Smith recalls. "All those guys came out of [Davis'] band, and all of a sudden they were selling more records than him."

In 1973, Smith became a leader, forming his band, The Cosmic Echoes, and releasing his debut "Astral Traveling." It was a new take on fusion, merging bright Earth, Wind & Fire funk and world-music percussion with a dash of atonal free jazz assault. But while ecstasy and anger were common currency in that era, Smith's approach is meditative; music is the universal language, he says, and space is the key.

"The thing I like about jazz and improvisation is that you want the listener to use their own imagination," Smith says. "I don't want to try to tell you how to think, I want the music to go inside you. Everyone hears the same thing, but each gets exactly what they need. Then they go out and be better people, and solve these crazy problems we have now."

Over the next ten years the band survived through shifting personnel and the rise and fall of disco. They walked the razor's edge between selling and selling out.

"When you are playing, you sometimes forget that there is a music business," Smith says, "and all the major labels care about is how many units you've moved off the shelves."

Thirty years later, his music is still selling to new audiences, sometimes directly, sometimes through samples for hip-hoppers like Jay Z, Guru and Mary J. Blige. The licensing payments aren't bad, and Smith doesn't mind being a historic icon.

"They call us 'old school,'" Smith says, "but how you gonna have the new school without the old school?"

And how old can it be if the music is still fresh? On the road back from performing in "The Original Superstars of Jazz Fusion" — a victory-lap gig that also features Roy Ayres and Donald Byrd — the driver put on Byrd's "Flight Time."

"I didn't know it, and it was done years ago," Smith says with wonder, "but it sounded like it was recorded just the other day."

Art is ageless until it loses the ability to surprise. S

Lonnie Liston Smith and The Cosmic Echoes play The Canal Club Tuesday, Dec. 12, with The DJ Williams Projekt opening at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30 at www.thecanal club.com. (For Richmond Jazz Society members, tickets are $25 in advance.)
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