Lonnie Liston Smith

Explorations: The Columbia Recordings

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Lonnie Liston Smith's Explorations: The Columbia Recordings is a specially priced two-disc set that covers four albums (minus one track) in Lonnie Liston Smith's catalog -- Exotic Mysteries (1978), Loveland (1978), Love Is the Answer (1979), and Song for the Children (1980), while with Columbia Records. During this time, while Smith fully engaged the dance music sounds of the day (disco), he never employed them wholesale, which he has sometimes been accused of. As driven as he was by the union of funk and jazz -- since his days with Miles Davis some years earlier and continuing with his phenomenal band, the Cosmic Echoes -- that would haven been impossible. Instead, he was creating a blueprint for the smooth jazz and quiet storm phenomenon as they are heard today. Over three years, Smith folded many sounds into his mix that did include funk, disco, jazz, and even easy listening without ever giving up the instrumental and arrangement muscle that established his reputation. The first disc in the set is Exotic Mysteries, which is dovetailed on disc one by Loveland, both released in 1978. All of the elements Smith wove into his magic carpet are evident on "Space Princess," the opener. From the soaring, sensual feel of Ronald Miller's electric guitar (that echoes Ernie Isley's more exploratory moments), to the deep-patterned funk of a then young Marcus Miller on bass, to Smith's own lanky, snaky electric piano lines, ""Space Princess" bears down hard on rhythms as Afro-Cuban percussion, crossing polyrhythms, and straight groove all entwine around brother Donald Smith's vocal. A complete changeup occurs on "Quiet Moments," with beautifully subtle Brazilian percussion lines underlining Smith's acoustic piano motifs. The vibe is relaxed, shimmering, and highlighted by wispy, ethereal strings in the back of the mix. Loveland as an album is more celebratory, more inclusive of the dancefloor groove in a sense, but it nonetheless keeps its jazz roots on the surface, clearly evident. It's a bass-heavy record, with both Miller and Al Anderson holding down the chair and keeping the band focused on the rhythmic prize. Standout tracks include a fine version of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Bright Moments," with an amazing meld of acoustic and electric piano; warm, lilting flute lines; and a funky, soulful rhythm section turning in a series of riffs that would have made Kirk proud. The title cut is also a real winner, but the album as a whole is a stunner of the genre. Love Is the Answer appeared in 1979, and if anyone had doubts about Smith's jazz commitments, this disc had to put them to rest. This is the strongest album on the set. Love Is the Answer is the true articulation of the smooth jazz vocabulary uttered by a master innovator whose ideas about accessibility to the public were paramount throughout his career -- and still are. "In the Park," with its straight-ahead backbeat and bridge, is gloriously sophisticated. Consequently, with bassist Pee Wee Ford replacing Miller, tracks like the politically conscious "Speak About It," with Smith and Gloria Jones sharing vocals, is a jazz-funk classic with deep Afro-Cuban grooves. Song for the Children, released in 1980 as Smith's last outing for Columbia, is his own pioneering example of the quiet storm phenomenon. Equal parts jazz -- with Smith playing some of his most intimate and lush piano ever (check the title track) -- pop, soul, and groove, this album has been terminally misunderstood since its release. In the context of the other three albums here, it remains the most restrained, and perhaps "light," but is no less satisfying for it. Miller returned to add some of his trademark slow, simmering lines to carry the band, and Smith wove through and around rhythms and strings in the most lyrical performance of his career. This package, remastered lovingly and presented chronologically for a budget price, is as necessary as any of the Cosmic Echoes material, and certainly deserves a critical re-examination.

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