The name Yusef Lateef has been swimming around the back portions of my brain for a number of years now. Probably about 15, if you want to put a figure to it. Lydia Lunch one noted him as her favourite musician. Perhaps that's not much of a recommendation. It's only in recent months that I've taken the step of investigating some of his wares. I'd previously pegged him as an interesting character in the world of "jazz", though despite his well-known forays into the fields of ethno-exotica, I figured his music might be a touch to "polite" for my palette. Maybe it's just my tastes which have changed, or, more accurately, broadened, and has allowed his music to enter my sphere. At one stage of my life, I thought that anything less than Albert Ayler's Bells was music for pussies. Now I'm one of the pussies.
The artist known as Yusef Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Tennessee in 1920. He was one of the first notable American musicians to convert to Islam, which he did in 1950, and during these early years he played w/ the likes of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Elvin Jones and Dizzy Gillespie. It wasn't until the mid '50s that he gained prominence as a leader, and started to meld exotic sounds into his modal/bop sound. Between the years 1957 - 1967, he cut a slew of killer albums on labels such as Savoy and Impulse!, the latter bordering on the sound of the "New Thing". Live At Pep's (Impulse!/1964) featured Australia-via-En Zed pianist, Mike Nock, whilst Psychicemotus from '65 has bassist Reggie Workman (who's done time w/ Archie Shepp, Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, etc.) performing four-string duties.
Musically, these albums - ones such as Prayer To The East, Eastern Sounds, Cry! - Tender, Into Something, The Golden Flute and the ones previously mentioned - take a basic 1950s bop sound, one not too dissimilar to Miles' discs at the time, and spruce them up with an array of "ethnic" instruments: xun (Chinese flute), gong, Argol, shenai, Indian bells, as well as Lateef's oft-used flute, saxophone and oboe. Like a lot of jazz guys from the era, there's many covers present, from jazz standards to the sublime (Love Theme From Spartacus) to the unusual (Satie's First Gymnopedie on The Golden Flute). You can dig yourself deep in his sounds. It's spiritual without getting hokey. Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders took this trip further, much further, later in the decade, and made some of the greatest music ever in the process. They mixed the spiritual with the radical and I've talked about 'em enough in this blog not to go into them right now.
By later on in the '60s, Lateef tried to "contemporise" his sound a tad with albums like Detroit: Lattitude 42 30 Longitude 83, which featured players Ray Barretto and Cecil McBee. This meant electric-bass funk riffs, keyboards, congas, guitar and proto-rapping from the urban jungle. It's not as good as it could've been, though it's also not as bad as it could've been, either. That point would come in the late '70s with an album such as Autophysiopsychic, an all-out '70s soul-funk LP featuring Art Farmer. In the '80s, his music veered off into a New Age direction, similar to Pharoah Sanders' path at the time, though in the '90s - when he was in his 70s - he went back to his jazz roots, recording a great album with a large ensemble in 1997 called The World At Peace, w/ moments of clutter which bring to mind Sun Ra's recordings of yore. He 's now 90 years of age, and so far as I know, not musically active. I think he's earned a rest. Lateef has a lot of albums out there; a good deal of them you don't need, though you could grab just about any of his early Savoy, Prestige and '60s Impulse titles and walk away happy w/ your purchase. Lateef never actually called his music "jazz", and maybe you shouldn't either. If you dig the otherworldly, Oriental tones of Alice Coltrane or Don Cherry's finest moments, then Lateef is good entry point for going back into the roots of the sound. A friend of mine purchased a copy of The Golden Flute on my recommendation and told me he thought it was "boring". I've told him to persist. I don't think I'm leading you up the wrong path: Yusef Lateef is definitely worth the trouble.
As an endnote, since every post on this blog must relate to the SST label in some small way, I should add that none other than Ossie Cadena - Dez Cadena's dad - produced some of Lateef's Savoy/Prestige albums, Ossie being a west coast jazz legend of some note. See? Black Flag/Yusef Lateef. It all makes sense now.