Ask even the most fervent jazz fanatic to compile a list of great mid-20th century innovators, and chances are that Yusef Lateef will not make the grade. But the truth is, this criminally overlooked multi-instrumentalist deserves to stand up there with the best of them—as this timely reissue of his breakthrough 1961 album Eastern Sounds clearly demonstrates.
Oriental modes were certainly in vogue among jazz musicians at this time, but Lateef—born William Huddlestone before converting to Islam in 1950—can genuinely be said to have been at the vanguard of this mood. Even while working within a rigid hard bop setting, the naturally adventurous Lateef had been straining to incorporate non-Western sonorities into his music since the mid ‘50s, but it was with Eastern Sounds that he finally came to define his own pan-cultural approach to jazz. It is only a forgetful revisionism that neglects to give him his due credit as the pioneer he surely was.
The opener, “The Plum Blossom”, taps into the same kind of wistful exoticism that Sun Ra had been peddling for some years, largely thanks to an inspired choice of instrumentation: bassist Ernie Farrow taps out a simple rhythm on the Indian rabat, giving just enough room for Lateef to pick out a melody on the Chinese globular flute: a clay pipe with just a five note range—a limitation that doesn’t deter Lateef from blowing a beautifully expressive solo. Then, as if to remind the listener of this album’s jazz context, pianist Barry Harris—an old Detroit compatriot of Lateef’s—pitches in with a fantastically bluesy solo that plucks the tune out of the Orient and lands it firmly back in urban 20th-century America. Here, in a nutshell, is Lateef’s intention: A jazz record that speaks as succinctly and directly to its listeners as any other, but which, nevertheless, incorporates Eastern sounds to help open his audience’s ears just a little wider.
Much of Lateef’s success in pulling off this dichotomy so convincingly lies in the band, and the way it consistently offsets his more far-out excursions with a blue-collar, Western straightforwardness. In fact, this band can possibly be viewed as one of the great ‘lost’ ensembles of the ‘60s. Barry Harris’s piano is a lightning rod, tapping straight into the heart of the blues; Ernie Farrow’s bass is powerful and understated throughout, providing a solid grounding from which Lateef can launch off into the East; and the drum-stool is occupied by the inimitable Lex Humphries—already an alumnus of Sun Ra’s Arkestra—here showing a terrific responsiveness and restraint.
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the album is a joy. “Blues from the Orient” is, as the title suggests, a bluesy, mid-tempo swinger with Eastern interludes—given an unusual twist through Lateef’s use of the oboe, an instrument not commonly employed in jazz, then or now. Lateef explores the upper registers of the instrument, creating a strange, snake-charmer’s clarinet, while Harris lays out some vaguely Chinese chops, reminiscent of Ra’s “Overtones of China”.
On the jazzier side of things, there are some genuinely burning numbers to be enjoyed. “Ching Miau” has Lateef blowing a hard tenor over a driving, hypnotic, two-note modal bass figure, with the drums skipping along in a 5/4 time reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”; and on “Snafu”, Lateef’s meaty, Sonny Rollins-ish tenor fits snugly over another modal bass vamp, kicking up a swinging treat that sounds like a dark reworking of the Mexican party tune “Tequilla”.
True, there are some slight concessions towards commerciality, particularly the two interpretations of love themes from Hollywood movies Spartacus and The Robe (probably included at the request of the label)—but even these are set slightly off-kilter by the use of oboe, flute, and rabat, and even in these relatively restricted settings, Lateef’s natural irrepressible soul pours out in pure, lyrical flourishes.
Moreover, it’s easy to forgive Lateef’s choice of material when he sees fit to include the shimmering, funereal, Oriental ballad “Purple Flower”, with a slithering, snake-like tenor exploring the spaces between Farrow’s single-note bass thrum and Humphries’s fragile brushwork. As if in consolidation of the album’s stated intentions, it ends on much the same note as it began, with a return to the experimental sound of rabat, finger cymbals, and woodblocks accompanying an exotic flute.
Anyone with an interest in cosmic jazz and the mind-blowing excursions of mid-to-late ‘60s African-American music owes it to themselves to hear this neglected masterpiece: A quiet and tentative opening of the door that would be blasted wide in years to come. With this lovingly remastered Prestige reissue, given the full Rudy Van Gelder treatment that has enlivened so much of Blue Note’s back catalogue in recent years, Yusef Lateef’s brilliance has never sounded so clear.