Hear how he grows

Over the years, my experience with the various musics of Yusef Lateef has been like an association with an old friend who has moved away. Lost contacts, for long or short periods, only increase the joy of reunions. There’s the welcome catching up, the excitement of new or renewed interests, new stories and new ways of telling old tales.

Lateef’s concentration has focused at various times on specific aspects of music: rhythm, tempo, melody, harmony and instrumental combinations. During that exploration he has changed his name from William Evans (a big-toned, blues-based tenor saxophonist in Dizzy Gillespie’s post-World War II bop band) to Yusef Lateef, educator, composer, multi-instrumentalist. His discography is as long and strong as Shaq’s right arm. With no signs of slowing he continues, his eyes still on an unbounded horizon, heading into the millennium, and his ninth decade, with "jazz," "world music," "New Age" and "avant-garde" stickers on his luggage.

In the two score and some years before wigged and wiggling Motown homegirls pondered "Where Did Our Love Go?," Detroit was one of the staunchest outposts of bebop fundamentalism. "Bird and Bud We Trust" was struck on the musical coin of the realm. "How High the Moon" and "I Got Rhythm" were the foundations for myriad bebop tunes based on their chordal variations. Spanning that period, as student at Miller High and later Wayne University, and as a professional musician, Yusef Lateef was very much a part of the tradition.

But somewhere before the middle of his life’s journey Lateef strayed from the straight, middle path of Bebop Lane. Other sounds began to evidence themselves. Lateef, with an ear to the East with its more holistic outlook, began to shuck the chrysalis of Bebop Do or Die.

During this period, moving from house party to house party, I carried an album of assorted jazz EPs – extended play, 7-inch, 45 rpm records with the inch-and-a-half hole in the middle. At every opportunity I’d slip one on the spindle along with the currently popular rhythm and blues. Protests against these jazzy intrusions were milder than I expected. Included in that EP assortment were "Love and Humor" and "Meditation," Prestige pressings excerpted from the LP The Sound of Yusef, by the Yusef Lateef Quintet.

On those tunes, Lateef served up an eclectic stew of Third World instruments with weird configurations and strange-sounding names (earthboard, argol, rabat, your guess is as good as mine); Oriental scales; tricky time signatures; "non-musical" squeaks, scrapes, puffs and squawks, produced in part by a pop bottle and a balloon.

"Love and Humor" and "Meditation" serve as the Rosetta stone containing the keys to decoding the majority of Lateef’s multidimentioinal work that has followed.

Lateef ended his Detroit stay in 1960 after gigging with all the people and in all the places on that scene, doing exemplary and inspiring work.

He did sideman stints for the next few years, operating in Mingus’ workshops and seeing the world while riding the Cannonball Adderley funk express. Each association benefited from his contributions of muscle and drive.

As a leader on the national scene, Lateef’s Atlantic recordings comprise a typically atypical range of interests. They illustrate his restless curiosity and his impatience with narrow expectations. The early efforts are a mixture of a few overly produced sides and some classic hard-swingers, with only passing nods to his non-Western interests.

One of the better releases is 1970’s experimental Suite 16. Side One features a Fender bass and Whitney Houston’s mama, Cissy, with the Sweet Inspirations doing soulful takes on three of Yusef’s tunes. A highlight is "When a Man Loves a Woman": Lateef on oboe picks up where Percy Sledge left off. His rendition offers lessons for all the young folk on concision, dynamics and instrumental mastery. Side Two, a seven-part "Symphonic Blues Suite," is just that. Recorded with the Cologne Radio Orchestra, his tenor preaches, surges and pontificates over extended "classical" voicings. It’s the concerns of "Love and Humor," sweetened and expanded.

I sailed through the straits of the ’80s largely lashed to the mast, ears waxed against disco, fusion and the water torture of Reaganisms trickling down, drip, drip, drip. After a couple of years’ absence from my radar screen, Lateef resurfaced. He was in Nigeria now. Dr. Lateef now. Senior research fellow Lateef leading a group of his students from the Centre for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University. As with Suite 16, the concentration on Yusef Lateef in Nigeria is on tenor and flute figures over rhythmic patterns, this time in the form of vocal chants, multirhythms and drones.

The journey, in much of Lateef’s most recent work on his own YAL label, is best taken with the eyes shut, trusting the navigator. Whether in wistful, meditative, piano-led duos, exploring sound and space; tenor duos with the likes of Archie Shepp and Von Freeman; or concentrations on particular instruments, the trust is well placed. Lateef always finds a way to keep it real.

No matter how "far out," Eastern, African, pop-pap, 12-tone or atonal, from the ’50s onward, his sound is most successful when sanctified by his Chattanooga, Tenn., Lima, Ohio, and Detroit roots. No matter what the setting, his oboe cries like a whippoorwill wading knee-deep through Mississippi marshland. His flutes serpentine like Cleopatra’s pet along the banks of the Nile. His tenor, when breathing a ballad, makes you wipe a tear and want to love the one you’re with; up-tempo, his main horn retains its bar-walking, ripping and snorting quality from his "Big Bill Evans" days.

A great deal of the joy in witnessing the products of a restless mind is in the possibility of surprise. The spark of the unexpected. The spontaneous quirk of the revelatory mixture of something old with something new, something borrowed with something blue. … Like biting apprehensively into an unidentified confection from a sampler box and finding your favorite nugget or nut at its center. Failure of particular trials and errors to particular ears at particular moments hardly matters. It’s about preparedness and curiosity and gumption.

With Yusef Lateef, you can walk right in, sit right down, rub your hands together and ask, "What next?"

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