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Yusef Lateef: Eastern Sounds

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Eastern Sounds, newly remastered by Rudy van Gelder (the storied engineer who recorded the original September 1961 session), marks an early stage in Yusef Lateef's development. In particular, the record highlights two characteristics that would come to define his artistic identity: a spiritual streak and a fascination with non-Western music. Like John Coltrane (whose path resembles Lateef's in these respects) on "My Favorite Things," Lateef here frequently incorporates "Eastern sounds" in the form of modal vamps.

This musical cross-pollination succeeds in several instances. "Ching Miau" evokes Coltrane's classic quartet in its hints of layered rhythms, and also in the leader's dry, declamatory tone; Lateef seems to have absorbed, but also (given that it was only 1961) anticipated a lot from Trane's playing. "Purple Flower" is an affecting meditation on a vaguely Arabic scale, pointing forward to Ellington and Strayhorn's "Isfahan."

Two equally good moments have nothing to do with the eastward gaze. The group's "Don't Blame Me" is a magisterial reading of the standard, evoking for all the world Sonny Rollins' version of "You Don't Know What Love Is" (from Saxophone Colossus, Prestige, 1956, and which features Tommy Flanagan, another pianist, like Barry Harris, from the Detroit school). Solos by Lateef and Harris are among their career bests. Both likewise sound great on "Snafu, the most driving number on an otherwise meditative album.

Harris's presence is among the most rewarding features of the record. He never puts on world music airs but never fails to fit in. Whereas Lateef's ersatz Eastern oboe playing on "Blues for the Orient" sounds corny, Harris's fills are always apposite. (Witness also his lovely accents on "Three Faces of Balal.") Stanley Crouch would claim that is because Harris's basic vocabulary, fundamentally derived from Monk, is already non-Western in a profound sense.

In light of Lateef's subsequent career, there can be no doubting his commitment to either spiritual growth or world musical fusion (he would become a music professor in Nigeria for many years). But in 1961 these incipient engagements could sometimes sound superficial, much like Oriental accents in soundtrack music from 1950s Biblical movies. This impression is strengthened by the inclusion of two examples of bona fide movie music, from the scores to The Robe and Spartacus. The love theme from the latter, set against a kind of skittish shuffle, suffers by comparison with pianist Bill Evans' more widely known 1963 readings on Solo Sessions (Milestone) and Conversations with Myself (Verve).

Nevertheless, Lateef's gift is to infuse such apparently decorative gestures with real emotion. That, together with Harris's fine playing, amply redeem this record.

Track Listing: The Plum Blossom; Blues for the Orient; Ching Miau; Don't Blame Me; Love theme from Spartacus; Snafu; Purple Flower; Love Theme from The Robe; The Three Faces of Balal.

Personnel: Yusef Lateef: tenor saxophone, oboe, flute, Chinese globular flute; Barry Harris: piano; Ernie Farrow: bass, rabat; Lex Humphries: drums.

Title: Eastern Sounds | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Prestige Records

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