Yusef Lateef: Eastern Sounds

An overlooked classic of exotic jazz gets the full RVG remaster treatment.

Yusef Lateef

Eastern Sounds

Subtitle: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters
Label: Prestige
US Release Date: 2006-07-18
UK Release Date: 2006-08-28

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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