When Lonnie Liston Smith made the transition from sideman to leader in 1973, it was the beginning of a fusion/crossover/post-bop band he dubbed Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes. The acoustic pianist/electric keyboardist, who was born in Richmond, Virginia on December 28, 1940 should not be confused with soul-jazz/hard bop organist Lonnie Smith. This Smith would have had an impressive résumé even if he had never formed a band of his own. In the '60s or early '70s, he had been a sidemen for, among others, Pharoah Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gato Barbieri, singer Betty Carter, and trumpeter Miles Davis. In fact, Smith was still in Davis' employ when he signed with producer Bob Thiele's RCA-distributed Flying Dutchman label and recorded his first album as a leader, Astral Traveling (which Thiele produced). Nonetheless, the Cosmic Echoes were a major step forward for Smith — the improviser had a lot more time to devote to his own compositions and he was free to concentrate on a very spiritual type of fusion that had a variety of influences. The post-bop of model explorers like Coltrane, Sanders, Kirk, Yusef Lateef, McCoy Tyner, and Charles Lloyd was a heavy influence on Smith's composing since all of those artists shared the Cosmic Echoes' spiritual concerns. But the Cosmic Echoes were hardly jazz purists. Their instrumental fusion combined those post-bop influences with funk, pop, and rock, and some of their best-known vocal numbers (which include 1979's "Space Princess" and 1983's "Never Too Late") were outright R&B.
From 1974 on, the Cosmic Echoes' albums were typically about 80 percent instrumental, but included a few vocal offerings. Subsequent Cosmic Echoes projects included 1975's Expansions, 1975's Visions of a New World, 1976's Reflections of a Golden Dream, and 1977's Renaissance, all of which were on either Flying Dutchman or RCA proper. Along the way, the Cosmic Echoes had more than their share of personnel changes. When the group recorded a live album for RCA in 1977, the lineup included Smith on piano and keyboards, his brother Donald on vocals, Dave Hubbard on tenor and soprano sax, Al Anderson on electric bass, Ronald Miller on electric guitar, and Hollywood Barker on drums — a lineup that, except for Lonnie Liston Smith himself, is totally different from the Cosmic Echoes lineup heard on 1973's Astral Traveling.
It was in 1978 that Smith and his Cosmic Echoes left RCA and moved to Columbia to record Loveland, which was a respectable seller (at least by jazz standards) and fared well among fusion, crossover, and quiet storm fans. Smith's next Columbia album, Exotic Mysteries, gave us the single, "Space Princess," which featured Donald on lead vocals and became a minor hit. Although Exotic Mysteries was primarily an instrumental fusion album, "Space Princess" wasn't jazz at all — the tune is funk-disco but still has that mystic Cosmic Echoes vibe. Some people felt that when Smith and his Cosmic Echoes were recording for Columbia in the late '70s and early '80s, they became too slick and commercial — nonetheless, the group still had integrity and was still enjoyable and interesting during its Columbia period.
In the mid-'80s, the Cosmic Echoes unofficially called it quits and Smith moved on to other things, including appearing on rapper Guru's Jazzmataz, Vol. 1 in 1993. He also returned to a Cosmic Echoes-minded approach in 1998, when he was reunited with his brother Donald and featured him on the album Transformation (which came out on Smith's own label Loveland Records). His music also continued to hold fascination for younger artists who mined his work for inspiration. Both Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z scored hits with samples from Smith's recording "A Garden of Peace," off 1979's Dreams of Tomorrow. In 2002, Sony's reissue-oriented Legacy Recordings looked back on the Cosmic Echoes' late-'70s and early-'80s output with a two-CD retrospective titled Explorations: The Columbia Years. Over the coming years, Smith stayed active with live appearances, including a spot at Glastonbury in 2009, and in Virginia at the Norfolk Waterfront Jazz Festival in 2017. ~ Alex Henderson