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Review: RBMA presents Gilles Peterson and Lonnie Liston Smith Live

Gilles Peterson & Lonnie Liston Smith RBMA on Cone Magazine

For the final instalment of Red Bull Music Academy’s Bristol leg of their UK tour, we found ourselves nestled within the intimate confines of Bristol’s planetarium, for an evening with Gilles Peterson & Lonnie Liston Smith.

The night began with fabled sound selector and BBC radio 6 host Gilles Peterson, introducing his main guest of the evening Lonnie Liston Smith.

Gilles kicked off the proceedings by comically taking the edge off things, which seems to come quite naturally to him. Adopting a pedantic stance, he corrected Tayo Popoola after incorrectly referencing (a close friend of his) Roni Size’s record ‘Brown paper bag’. From thereon in, he continued the humorous charade of meticulously correcting errors in the interview via the vaults of his cognitive musical encyclopaedia.

Trying to concisely summarise the insurmountable experience and achievements of the great Lonnie Liston Smith is not an easy task. In doing so you find yourself name dropping some of the most influential people involved in the history of Jazz music. During this three way discussion that went on for just over an hour, Tayo Popoola dug deep into Smith’s musical past. Beginning with a look at his formative years as part of the Pharoah Sanders Ensemble in 1968, Smith described his introduction to the Fender Rhodes electric piano, as a serendipitous discovery contrived by his studio engineer.

Gilles Peterson & Lonnie Liston Smith RBMA on Cone Magazine

After appearing on a string of releases on the record label ‘Flying Dutchman’, owner Bob Thiele then encouraged Smith to release ‘Astral Travelling’ on the same label. This was the precursor to the release of Smith’s landmark album ‘Expansions’, which was celebrating it’s 40 year anniversary on the same day.

Around this point, Smith begins to reference close associate, mentor and father of Jazz Miles Davis as the proponent of his partiality with the electric organ. He speaks about Miles Davis, bold and straight-talking personality whilst reminiscing on a story where Davis persuaded him to learn the electric organ in two days before recording ‘On The Corner’, released on Columbia Records in 1973. At this point Gilles pulls out the exact same record from his bag to show the room. This comportment from Gilles continued throughout the evening, firmly reminding us of why Gilles is revered as one of the most insightful record collectors of our generation.

Smith then went on to speak about his relationship with a firm Cone Magazine favourite Sun Ra, before going into his connections with the hip hop world. It was so humbling to hear Smith speak about his affiliation with Guru on the release of ‘Down the backstreets’ as part of the famed ‘Jazzmatazz’ series. Having listened to ‘Jazzmatazz’ religiously throughout my youth, I began to imagine how Gilles must have been feeling, also listening to a man who played such a large part in their early teenage years of music discovery.

Gilles then rounded out the discussion, by inviting a group of closely related musicians to the stage to perform some numbers from Expansions. The planetarium is actually still under renovation, and closed to the general public. However, due to the recent installation of a 360° digital 3D, 4K ultra high-definition projector, coupled with a 7.1 surround sound system, meant that we could experience this mind bending display alongside their performance.

Gilles Peterson & Lonnie Liston Smith RBMA on Cone Magazine

The dichotomy between a live band and a ceiling projection became synonymous in their connection once the common thread of the cosmos was established. Prior to performing, Lonnie encouraged us to relax, and let our minds leave our bodies. This was something that came easier than expected with the start of Astral Travelling. Planets and stars rained down on us, and you felt like you were literally travelling through space.

My quandary throughout the performance was deciding on what to focus on. A legend of jazz performing right in front of my very own eyes, or the psychedelic string of intergalactic visual effects playing out above our heads. However, in my opinion, this was more about the music, and I was not hesitant to sink into my chair, and fall deep in to a meditative trance state.

One thing I realised in trying to review this performance was that, it did feel very introspective. I found myself ruminate about ideas of self-discovery, philosophy and cosmic dimensions within my own mind. For this reason, I feel my own subjective experience of the night would probably differ quite starkly from each other person in the room.

However, the performance did feel guided. As the warped visuals of moving galaxies, matrices, and altering grid structures showered down on us, the following dialogue appeared on the screen: “There are billions of stars in just our galaxy. Around each of these fixed stars undoubtedly revolves a planetary system like our own. If you were to travel to the blurriest and most distant star in our sky, you would surely see billions more stars.” These messages gave us all a channel of focus to deliberate on.

The room was alive with energy once the heavily swung chimes of Expansions’ infectious triangle grabbed us from our seats. Smith grooving away on his Fender Rhodes electric piano, alongside an upright bass, flute, shaker, and Lonnie’s very own guitarist. This felt so intimate and personal. It was such an authentic experience to watch Smith jamming away on the E-piano, wearing his blacked out shades and falling deeply into a self-induced cosmic coma.

“Expand your mind. Expand your mind. Expand your mind.” There was little doubt that by the end of this beautifully executed affair, we had all left Bristol’s spherical theatre feeling a little more educated, within a state of inertia and having experienced something quite truly special.

Words by Peter Malla




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