Dr. Lonnie Smith, the master Hammond organist, talks like a younger man. When Smith called us from Chicago last week, he was beaming and friendly, eager to discuss not just own new music, but also the performers, producers, and whole genres that have succeeded and interpolated him. Smith, 73, worked with acquaintances old and new to create his latest album, Evolution, a blend of long-preserved compositions and fresh ideas.
Following the untimely death of the rapper Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest last week, we reached out to Smith, who is most immediately familiar to hip-hop via the producer Q-Tip's sample of Smith's work on the classic rap single "Can I Kick It?," released in 1990. Below, Smith discusses his new album, working with younger artists to make old songs new, and his eternal conversation with hip-hop.
You’ve got seven songs here, a few new, and a few that you’re replaying. When did you start working on the newer songs like “African Suite?"
A lot of these songs were written a thousand years ago. I’ve got songs in my head that I’ve written since I was a teen, but I’ve just never played them.
How do you retain and craft a song for fifty years?
It’s up there. It’s hard, though, because I play by ear. I just have to remember it. Sometimes it comes back to me; sometimes it doesn’t, and you lose a song.
Who’d you work with for this album?
Very good musicians. When I try to get someone to play on the album, I know their style, and I know their fit before even they do. I used Jonathan Kreisberg, my regular guitarist. Jonathan Blake on drums; I use him constantly. Joe Dyson on drums, who I also use regularly; he’s here in Chicago with me right now. John Ellis, he’d played with me in the beginning. Keyon Harrold on trumpet, and another beautiful trumpet player by the name of Maurice Brown. Joe Lovano. Robert Glasper.
Was “Play it Back” your first time working with Robert Glasper?
Yes. Keyon, Maurice, and Robert Glasper were the only ones I hadn’t played with. It gelled really nice. When we hit it, we played it down once, and that was it. We didn’t waste time in the studio at all. I just like to play it down, and that’s the way it is. When you try to make it perfect, it’s not real. I want to keep it real.
Where did you all record that record?
It was out in a studio in Brooklyn. There’s a beautiful studio. I can’t think of the name right now, but they did a great job.
It seems to me that you make a point of working with younger musicians. Why?
It’s a beautiful thing. Young people weren’t around when you played whatever you played. They add their thing, and you try to keep it open. Sometimes I don’t want it to be exactly like how I did it before. Sometimes it’s hard to be the person that originally did a tune; you get the original take, and that’s it.
When I do someone else’s song, that song then becomes mine. I didn’t write the song, but this is the way I interpret it. This is how I hear it. You can hear a song, and hear yourself actually playing it.
That’s a very hip-hop attitude.
I hear that. I don’t have to sit and say, “What if I do this?” I don’t have to do that. I can feel myself and hear myself playing it before I do. You just get on the organ, and you play it like you feel it. And it feels so good because now you’re playing what you feel instead of playing exactly what someone else felt. What kind of plan is that? It’s not coming from your heart.
Hip-hop has re-imagined lots of your music.
That’s great that they’ve done that. They heard it, they hit it, and it worked. They do the heck out of it. It’s beautiful. When hip-hop takes my music and goes somewhere else, it’s with the time now. Sometimes, one of my daughters will rap to one of my songs, and I’ll think it fits perfectly; that it's meant for that.
For 40 years now, rap, jazz, funk, and gospel have been in perpetual conversation with one another. What do you make of that conversation?
I think it all stems from the gospel. It stems from truth and conversation. The music stays true to itself, and it carries on. When I go to Asia, Africa, anywhere, even though they might not know the words, they understand the music. They understand the feel. And it’s all relative. All the musicians as great as I am, they’re all telling their story, their way. It’s a beautiful thing when you’re trying to tell somebody a story.
A Tribe Called Quest did a lot to introduce my generation to your music, and it so happens that Phife Dawg passed away just a couple days ago. Had you met him?
What was your sense of Tribe's music and legacy?
They were innovative. When I met Q-Tip, we did a thing for Blue Note, and he was there. We had never met, but the connection was there, and we were talking about the music. It was a beautiful meeting. It was like we had known each other all this time.
Have you two, perchance, spent any time together in a studio?
We never had a chance. That’s the bad thing about music. We sometimes travel so much, and are moving around so much, that we can’t always meet up. We travel around on planes, making people happy, but we don’t see each other. Isn’t that something?
It's wild that you and Tribe sustained a musical conversation for so many years—decades—without meeting or working together at all.
Then when we do hook up, that’s what you all see! When we haven’t seen each other, we get to play the music, and it just connects. It’s a great feeling because you know you understand each other. And you’re rooting for the other person.
Tribe was so innovative. When they placed my stuff, it was just the right spot. What makes you do that? If you put it in the wrong spot, it won’t work. They put it in the right spot.
What’s the current state of the conversation between hip-hop and jazz?
I think it’ll continue for some time. When rap first came out, we didn’t think it was gonna last. Instead, each decade, the beat changes. There’s a rhythm, a flow, and they’re telling a story. I’m not into swearing and cursing and belittling people; I’m not into that. But everyone has a story to tell about their life. That’s the story I want to hear. I want them to tell it.