Last Monday, temperatures had reached a steamy 95° by late afternoon and into early evening. Clouds hovered unpromisingly on the horizon, threatening the cancellation of another show. But as the sun set across the Philadelphia skyline and the skies began to clear, a light and welcome breeze started to blow through the glen on the Camden, New Jersey waterfront. Something cosmic was in the air and on its way towards tonight’s Sunset Jazz performance.
The crowd gathering was a mixed one but made up predominately of Boomers. It made sense since Lonnie Liston Smith’s music was born during that time period and before; a time of turmoil as well as cooperation and influence. From his Gospel roots, he’s played with jazz greats like Art Blakey
and Max Roach, later embracing the transcendental, improvisational musings of Kirk (Roland), Davis (Miles) and Sanders (Pharaoh) before finally settling on his own mix of jazz-fusion-funk tinged with a bit of R&B, Blues, Soul, Gospel and big band just to round everything out.
But there’s also something understated about his sound; something that he brings to the table that we don’t rap about that much. Maybe it’s because he came to us this time when things were going on and everyone, everywhere, was a bit on edge with all that was happening, that I even thought about it. But what I thought of was that Lonnie Liston Smith is about peace.
Funny I should think that but I blame my wife because she was the one who first noticed the overall ages of the attendees. I told her that folks were coming here to remember those days of back then when they could just put on a record and kick back and let the music enter their souls and take them away. Lonnie’s music was the like that; the type that made you chill and think. Dubbed “Cosmic Funk”, for many the operative word was cosmic, indicating man’s grasp at a better understanding of himself, in all his incarnations. For others, you overlooked the funk side of things at your own risk.
And the funky side of things was on hand Monday night. For this performance, Lonnie played with four, young stellar musicians. I emphasize their age only because it’s important to take note of this molding of time periods, technology and technique. The true jazz greats attract, collaborate with and nurture the young, up-and-coming jazz greats. It’s as simple as that.
And it’s always a pleasure when you get a chance to witness such collaboration first hand. Lee Pearson Lonnie’s MD and playing on drums, hails out of Baltimore and has played with the likes of Savion Glover, Roy Ayers and Erykah Badu, to name a few, as well as having performed a stint with the Tonight Show with Jay Leno band. He also tours with his own group Beava’s Atmosphere but was the hard driving force of the Cosmic Echoes on that night. DC native Samir Moulay, who’s rapidly becoming a name in jazz circles, lent a smooth, accomplished sound on guitar. He’s toured most extensively with Marcy Gray and Natalie Cole, accompanying the latter playing with many symphony orchestras doing jazz standards of her father, NKC. Rounding out the band was Vernon Prout on bass guitar, another Baltimore resident and Tabitha Pearson on vocals, a Michelle Obama look-a-like with a strong, multi-ranged voice.
And what of Lonnie’s call for peace? It’s there in his music, in the lyrics of his songs. It was in his words during the concert when he told us to try harder to love and understand one another because crazy things were happening all around us. It shows in his influence on artists of other musical varieties. And mostly it’s there because he doesn’t make a big deal about it being there.
Rather than extolling us that peace is the answer, he acts as if that’s something we should already know; a journey that we all should’ve left long ago, to embark upon. Instead of a chance at peace, he asks us to expand our minds to understand that without it, we can not be. It’s a simple straightforward message that still resounds today.