Arts & Events » Music

That One Song: “Cosmic Changes” by Lonnie Liston Smith

Richmond jazz legend works with a former member of A Tribe Called Quest.


He’s a cosmic keyboard pioneer. A sideman to jazz legends. A revered source of hip-hop samples. And he’s not done yet.

Richmond’s own Lonnie Liston Smith is the latest featured artist on the Jazz Is Dead label, which is led by composer, arranger and producer Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the similarly interdisciplinary former member of A Tribe Called Quest.

Younge and Muhammad have made it their mission to pay forward the inspiration they’ve received by staging concerts and initiating new recordings that push innovators like Roy Ayers, Gary Bartz and Marcos Valle into exciting new creative territory late in their careers.

Smith also received an inspirational boost from musical forebears, having grown up in Church Hill with a father who sang in the gospel ensemble, The Harmonizing Four, and who rubbed elbows with legends Sam Cooke and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. His son Lonnie would later contribute to albums by Miles Davis, Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri before gaining a worldwide following in the early 1970s with the distinctively expansive and uplifting jazz-funk of his own band, the Cosmic Echoes.

Nearly 50 years later — just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the music industry in its tracks — Smith traveled to Los Angeles to headline Jazz Is Dead’s Black History Month concert and track the material that, come April, will be released as “Jazz Is Dead 17.” For Smith, who earned his pioneering reputation by breaking sonic barriers with Pharoah and embracing the spontaneity that Miles demanded, entering Younge and Muhammad’s orbit meant adapting to yet another new style of music-making. “

I’m playing this by ear,” he says, “because it’s all new to me.”

The first single, “Cosmic Changes,” is proof that at 82, he’s still reaching for the stars.

Composer and arranger Adrian Younge, Richmond's own Lonnie Liston Smith and multi-instrumentalist Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest) chop it up in a Los Angeles studio.
  • Composer and arranger Adrian Younge, Richmond's own Lonnie Liston Smith and multi-instrumentalist Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest) chop it up in a Los Angeles studio.

Style: How did you first get involved with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad?

Lonnie Liston Smith: I wasn’t familiar with Jazz Is Dead at all, and Ali and Adrian kept calling. “We’ll fly you out, business class or first class…” All the good stuff. Then when I got out there, they had a different way of recording.

What makes their studio process unique?

LLS: What happens is they give you this idea. It’s not a complete song. It’s an idea, a little phrase or a motif, and once you get it you have to start developing it. I said, “Oh, OK. I got it. You just want me to go ahead on and play.” There wasn’t a whole lot of takes or anything. You just start, then you develop that idea. Then when I left they added all the other things and the vocals. I think [vocalist Loren] Oden listened to everything — the ones he did — and he added some lyrics. So it was fast. It wasn’t rushing, but once you developed it, that was it.

Did you record the new material around the same time you performed for the Jazz Is Dead event in 2020, or did you head back to L.A. to record?

LLS: It was all at the same time. First-class ticket, first-class hotel… but they got their money’s worth, brother, because I recorded all day, and then I had to stay there and rehearse with the band that evening. And we’re talking about every day, for a while. It was long, and the show was after all of the recordings… But it was amazing, because you meet all these young kids, and they’re saying, “We’ve been listening to your music, but we never thought we’d get a chance to see you…” The young kids — they’re really into the 1970s.

Adrian Younge has called Jazz Is Dead’s work a “divine responsibility.” Did you feel that level of dedication and appreciation when collaborating with him?

LLS: Yeah, definitely. With Adrian, I give him credit. I call him the “smooth operator,” because he’s something else … He had articles on me from when I was in Downbeat way back in the day. He gave me one and I said, “Wow, I never could find this…”

They had this large building, and in the back he had a real studio, and in the middle, [a hair] salon, but then when you keep going, through the salon, they got a record store right in front. Then there’s a DJ in the window. I experienced something I’ve never experienced before. I walked in the studio, because I was getting ready to do this interview with Adrian… I heard this music and I said, “Wow, that’s beautiful. Who is that?” And everybody stopped and looked at me. They said, “Lonnie, that’s you!” It was a song called “Just Us Two...” I’d forgotten all about it. So when I got back home I had to relearn it. It was fun. The whole situation was just different. It’s going to be interesting. Wouldn’t that be something if this thing takes off?

Is it fun being back in album rollout mode after so long?

LLS: In this case it is fun, because I don’t know what’s going to happen because I’ve never recorded this way before. I’m just waiting to see how people receive it and accept it.

“Jazz Is Dead 17” is out April 28. To hear “Cosmic Changes” and pre-order the album, visit