Yusef Lateef: Eastern Sounds Turns 50
When a U.S. Supreme Court justice was asked to define pornography, he famously replied that it was difficult to define, but he knew it when he saw it. As a blues lover, it's easy to relate to that, as it's more than tempo, bars, chords and scalesyou know it when you hear it. Jazz, blues, gospel, and rock may have much in common, but despite superior skills, not every jazz player can pull off blues or rock.
On jazz recordings, "Blues" is frequently incorporated into song titles, but it often turns out to be something conceived by and played for those with sophisticated tastes, like ordering a hot dog at a baseball game and getting a marinated Italian sausage. Truth be told, I often like this jazzier form of blues, but I don't think of it as blues any more than I think of fusion as rock.
However, because of their chops it is a real thrill to hear jazz musicians who play the blues with the feel and energy of a blues musician. I remember being completely knocked out when I heard Dizzy Gillespie play the blues (there's not much online of him in a straight blues vein, but I did find this YouTube clip.) If the post-big band generations had revered the trumpet as they did the guitar, Dizzy, if he had desired, could well have been king of the bluesbut back to Lateef.
This album caused me to think of Yusef Lateef as a bluesman. Upon initially checking the liner notes before playing Eastern Sounds, I noted that Lateef plays blues on the oboe. My first thought was: one marinated Italian sausage on the way. I was utterly wrong; what a brilliant blues player. Lateef's phrasing is striking, and he makes choices few blues players would or could; yet, despite his musical sophistication, he is unquestionably playing the blues. Even on a straight jazz ballad like "Purple Flower," his sax has a blues feel and energy. Lateef would no doubt reject the labels, and assert that he is simply tapping into his true spiritual and emotional self. How could I disagree, his playing and music striking such a personal and emotional chord , and why else would a guitar/B3 freak rave about an oboe blues?
To be fair, when Jeff Dayton-Johnson reviewed the Rudy Van Gelder-remastered Eastern Sounds on All About Jazz in 2006, he found that, "Lateef's ersatz Eastern oboe playing on 'Blues for the Orient' sounds corny." Lateef has flutes in his toolbox, and that would have been the safe and obvious alternative, but oboe strikes me as a bold and natural choice for an oriental themejust as Derek Trucks' Gibson SG on "Sahib Teri Bandi" does on Songlines (Legacy, 2006).
In questions of taste there is no right or wrong; as Duke Ellington famously said, "if it sounds good and feels good, then it is good!" Likewise, if it sounds corny, it is corny. Thom Jurek's five-star All Music Guide review of Eastern Sounds comes closer to my view, but below there's a YouTube clip of Lateef playing the blues on oboe, with Cannonball Adderley; draw your own conclusion.
The album is also noteworthy because it contains the first cover of Alex North's "Love Theme from Spartacus," from Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film, Spartacus. The original music from the film here, and a beautiful orchestral version here. Many jazz lovers are familiar with pianist Bill Evans' cover from late 1963, two years after Lateef's, while serious Carlos Santana fans will remember it from The Swing of Delight (Columbia, 1980), which featured an all-star lineup including pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and drummers Harvey Mason and Tony Williams. Nowadays, Santana sometimes plays this tune as a lead-in to "Smooth."