Lonnie Liston Smith





One look at the front artwork, and one's eyes pop out. Another look at the title of the album, and the erudite kind of timidity known as skepticism, alas, strikes through: this can’t be a good LP after all, not with such a standardized naming convention. Adding the fact that Funk is the driving force of this eight-track journey, and composing synthesist Lonnie Liston Smith (born 1940) is out of the game if the Exotica fan comes across his work. Better luck next time. Or is it? This time, things are gratifyingly different. Loveland is recorded in 1978 in New York and released in the same year on CBS Records.


A big budget production with an orchestra of horns and strings conducted by Bert DeCoteaux, Loveland seems to fit the old rule right from the outset, stating that orchestras and their bandleaders only play a major role in 70’s music productions if they are willed to let their skills blend in synergetic surroundings. Unsurprisingly, these synergetic surroundings are nurtured by Funk, Fusion and a little bit of Batucada, although L.L. Smith’s album grows and prospers thanks to the addition of the orchestra and a stupefying amalgamation of textures. Spacy synths merge with electric pianos, jungle flutes float over syringa guitars. Great melodies as well as eclectic solos round off a surprisingly luring album. Seven principal players create an intriguing sequence of enchantments together with said orchestra, among them guitarist Ronald D. Miller, vocalist and flutist Donald Smith, saxophonist and flutist David Hubbard and drummer George Johnson. Here is the expected closer look at a wildly auroral album that might trigger all the right synapses of the Exotica escapist as well.


Seemingly starting in medias res and with all the carefree emanations in the world, Lonnie Liston Smith and his crew greet the listener with the funky-jocund epithelium of glee that is Sunburst. Running for over four minutes, it comprises of gorgeously insouciant strings gyring around Smith’s refreshingly glacial electric piano backdrops which willfully succumb to David Hubbard’s alto flute. Said flute sounds even more sylvan as usual, serving as the thematic base of the song, even more so when the expectation of the front artwork becomes reality. Particularly coruscating guitars and increasingly benthic piano droplets round off a sweet midtempo fanfare of insouciance.


Meanwhile, Journey Into Love is the expected downbeat ventiduct with Donald Smith in the limelight singing about various galaxies and, er, hip trips. Bert DeCoteaux’s superimposed horns work well with the cosmic circumambience as emitted by the synths. Glittering stardust pianos first caulk and eventually ostracize the threatening nothingness of a song that surprisingly manages to reciprocate between earthbound jungles and aeriform epiphanies. Carving out the latter even further, the oneiric Floating Through Space is an Ambient sparkler of softened cymbals, argentine wind chimes, heavily viscoelastic electric piano avulsions and many an amniotic leeway. It is the textures that count, not necessarily the melodies, though the track succeeds on both levels. It is Bright Moments, however, which breaks the verglas spell and offers panchromatic piano lariats and Disco-esque vibes in an ebullient city suntrap skillfully fueled by amethystine strings.


On side B, Lonnie Liston Smith opens up to the idea of Disco mica mixed wih alkaloidal scrimshaw spikes and hence merges the glistening aura of Funk with both the flamboyancy of hedonistic string washes and even an exotic undercurrent of Lawrence Killian’s congas in We Can Dream, astutely realized vocal-wise by Donald Smith. Soft brass stabs, kaleidoscopic piano helixes and granular synth nebulae put the finishing touches on an uplifting sermon-filled tune. The subsequent Springtime Magic is keen on escapism as well: this instrumental showcases L.L. Smith’s prestidigitation on the electric piano, with more than a few convoluted spirals, and David Hubbard’s return on the flute, bringing back the positively chlorotic emerald aura of pristine coppices.


Afterwards the album’s title track Loveland is an elasticized string serenade not unlike the Reggae-based substyle known as Lovers Rock. The guitars play a minimal role only, making room for heartfelt sax anhydrides which protrude the caustic layer entanglement. Nocturnal but awash with colors due to the distant strings, the song would have been a fitting apotheosis to the LP… were it not for the fast-paced journey and true endpoint Explorations. Running for over six minutes, this Batucada/Funk synergy may be less aglow with scintillating colors, but what it lacks in its photometry it gains in an intriguing sequence of solos and of course a luring tempo. Cavernous electric guitars, George Johnson’s effervescent performance on the drums, sax placentas that lead the way plus a few raucous clashes make this the rascal of the album, a bit rougher and edgier, but iridescent nevertheless.


Loveland is Lonnie Liston Smith’s best album of the 70’s; a bold statement to make, I have to admit. However, it is here that the archetypal Funk elements and susurrant synth scintillae really merge well and create dreamworlds of carefreeness in tandem with perennial zero-gravity visions. Heck, even Donald Smith’s standardized wisdoms in the veins of "come with me," "we can try together," or "let’s make this world a better place" cannot diminish the album’s imminent allure. Textures and melodies conflate into a viscid-vivid photometry that – for once – is justifiably addressed by the front artwork. And yet do Lonnie Liston Smith and his band neglect to become slaves to cheesy melodies. In fact, some of the most skilled piano solos and flute adjuvants are dropped in this here album, channeling the subsequent levels of success into a cohesive (w)hole. All this despite a tendency that is actually nerve-racking, were it not for the colorful textures, surfaces and patterns: the tendency of interchanging slow, dreamy songs with fast-paced centrifugal forces.


Don’t get me wrong, this hit-or-miss pattern is found in millions of musical works spanning multitudinous genres, but the danger of an unwanted deceleration after a fast-paced belcher – or vice versa, a vivid wakeup call after a polyfoil pipe dream –  is a force to reckon with that has destroyed the flow of many albums. Loveland doesn’t lose anything of its fibrillar magic in my opinion, for its endemic flow doesn’t derive from the tempo or BPM but the well-balanced timbres, vein and quality of its structures. Even if one loathes Disco and despises Funk, there are far worse genre-spanning albums to choose from. If there were only one album of Lonnie Liston Smith to check out, it shall be Loveland; available on vinyl and CD where it is coupled with the similarly auroral Exotic Mysteries.


Exotica Review 480: Lonnie Liston Smith – Loveland (1978). Originally published on Feb. 11, 2017 at AmbientExotica.com.