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In 1971, Steve Wood was a senior at Grosse Pointe North High School, just a kid playing tenor sax in a rock 'n' roll band called the Invisible Circus and dreaming of rock stardom. Then a record-buying trip changed his life. Wood had only been playing tenor sax for a little more than a year at that point, and, although he listened to jazz and dug hearing it live, he had no designs on becoming a jazz man. Then he heard The Dreamer by Yusef Lateef. It was, as they say, a life-changing moment. The Detroiter's thick-toned tenor sax and fluid flute playing cast a spell over Wood, one he's never wanted to shake.

So that was more than 35 years ago, and Wood has since become a world-class jazz tenor saxophonist. He always admired Lateef's tone, and during his early years he spent a lot of time transcribing Lateef's recorded solos, lick for penetrating lick. But as greats are wont to do, Wood developed his own identity — on the tenor his tone is as sturdy as reinforced brick — and he counts Lateef as his principal influence. On Jan. 19, Wood and his quintet will revisit Lateef's post-bop years on the Savoy label as part of a gig at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Wood's quintet includes bassist Don Mayberry, drummer Bert Myrick, Brad Felt on euphonium and pianist Kevin Grenier.) Wood spoke with Metro Times about his plans for the show, and growing up in Detroit as a lover of jazz.

Metro Times: Yusef Lateef has had a huge impact on a legion of tenor saxophonists. A few years back, I interviewed Sonny Rollins, and he spoke of how Lateef influenced him as both a player and a person. You treat Lateef with the same reverence. How has studying his music shaped you?

Steve Wood: When I discovered Lateef that day in 1971, buying records at a jazz collector's house, I really had no frame of reference to know his music. He was one of the first jazz saxophonists I'd ever listened to. But I bought The Dreamer. I think it was the Prestige double reissue. Actually, it was a lot of the recordings from his Savoy sessions of the 1950s, and I thought it was great. When I discovered Yusef I had been listening to Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Coltrane. I had a pretty broad awareness of jazz, and who was playing the tenor saxophone. But I was immediately attracted to Lateef's playing.

MT: What was it about Lateef's music that struck you? How was he different than the saxophonists you just named?

Wood: Well, he was one of the first guys to incorporate into jazz what we'd call "world music" today. It was mostly in the instrumentation. He would use some Asian and African reed instruments. I found that interesting, and certainly different. I loved his tone on tenor saxophone, and I absolutely loved his approach to playing modern jazz.

MT: How soon after you got hooked on Lateef did you begin trying to transcribe his solos?

Wood: Pretty quick; within months after hearing him, actually. At that time I had enough facility on the horn to transcribe solos. I couldn't play very good jazz solos, but I could copy other guys. I got into doing some transcription of his recordings, and the music sounded very simple on first listen, but he used some very advanced concepts. For example, in the 1959 Savoy recording he used poly-chords. He used major triads over bass roots that were not in the chords. That was something that to my knowledge wasn't widely done at the time. I have always been very surprised and impressed by that.

MT: Lateef first started recording as a leader on Savoy. For the upcoming tribute gig, why did you select that period of his music?

Wood: Certainly for my taste, that was one of his best periods. I really like the Savoy recordings. Just recently, a friend gave me Last Savoy Sessions. I thought, these recordings are so, so cool. First of all, with that Detroit rhythm section of Terry Pollard, Will Austin and Frank Gant, I thought it was redolent of that early Detroit jazz scene. You think of these people as local musicians, but you listen to those records and they just sound so great. The idea for doing this concert was an outgrowth of getting Last Savoy Sessions. I thought, "If get the chance, I'd like to present this music."

MT: Do you have aspirations to do a recording of Lateef's music?

Wood: Probably not. I don't think that I could add anything to what he did back in 1959. I really don't. The definitive versions are his. It's a lot of fun for me to learn the music, and to present it in a live performance format to people who haven't heard it. I think that's worthwhile. But I don't think recording it would make a lot of sense. It would be impossible to improve on the original stuff.

MT: What do you think about Lateef's evolution as a jazz musician?

Wood: His early music is more to my taste, but for someone with such an advanced musical consciousness as his, anything that he's going to do is going to be great. So I think what he's doing now is great. It's Yusef Lateef, so by definition it's fantastic.


See Also:

Stick these in your iPod
by Johnny Loftus

Tender Lateef tracks from when cool was organic.

Friday, Jan. 19, 6:30 & 8 p.m., at at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900. Concerts are free with DIA admission.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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