Yusef Lateef: Eastern Sounds Turns 50

Alan Bryson By

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Think back fifty years to the days portrayed on the TV series Mad Men. In 1961, John Kennedy and Billboard's Easy Listening Chart were inaugurated, a freedom riders bus was fire-bombed in Alabama, Rock Hudson was on the big screen, and Doris Day was selling albums.

As teenagers and their swinging parents were twisting their brains out to Chubby Checker or the "authentic music by the King Curtis Combo," East German communists began construction of the Berlin Wall, the Beach Boys formed in California, and The Beatles performed, for the first time, at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

At this time, saxophonists Yusef Lateef and John Coltrane were pioneering an approach to music that transcended convention, cultures, borders and labels; concomitantly, Robert E. Brown, a young professor of ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, coined the term "world music."

September 5, 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of Lateef's groundbreaking album Eastern Sounds (Moodsville, 1961), engineered and mastered by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder. Although this column will generally be a conversation about the blues, it seems fitting to launch it by commemorating this classic album, arguably one of the first commercially viable examples of world music.

Seen in its historical context it was an extraordinary achievement. When this album was released, Lateef was in a supporting role in Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's group. He had been given a chance to record a session under his own name on the Moodsville label, and obviously the label expected something that could be played at a party hosted by Don Draper. For his part, Lateef had been immersing himself in the music of many cultures, and was eager to explore these influences on an album, something not even John Coltrane had done at this point.

No doubt, he was wise enough not to tip his hand to the label, but imagine if he had pitched his actual plan: "Okay, the first track on side one is my calling card," Lateef might have said. "Listeners and disc jockeys are going to decide if they like this album based on that. So I was thinking, I bought this 1200 year-old Chinese clay flute and I've been learning to play it. It only has a scale of five notes, and it is like blowing over a Coke bottle, but I've written this piece called 'The Plum Blossom,' and I think I can make it work. Oh, and I forgot to mention, instead of a bass, on this track Ernie Farrow will be playing a Middle Eastern string instrument you've never heard of. Don't worry, that's the only piece with the clay flute, the next tune is a blues number called 'Blues for the Orient,' and it's perfect for an oboe. Nobody does oboe blues, so this will be something new and exciting. The third piece is something I've come up with based on a Chinese musical scale."

Incredibly, he actually pulled that off within the context of what the label wanted.

When I first heard this album it struck me that Lateef, like Miles Davis and Lester Young, understood the power of silence; what isn't played is often as important as what is played. Eastern Sounds was recorded a couple of years after Davis released Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), and this is almost like a companion album—inventive yet accessible, melodic, impeccably tasteful, tender and compelling with its less-is-more approach. As with Kind of Blue, it has a timeless quality—fifty years on, and the appeal is undiminished.

In addition to Yusef Lateef on tenor sax, oboe, and flute, the album features Ernie Farrow on bass and rubab (rabat in the liner notes.). Another multi-instrumentalist, Farrow started out on piano, before taking up bass and drums. Coincidently, he is also Alice Coltrane's half-brother. Barry Harris is on piano and, as Joe Goldberg pointed out in the liner notes, he is best known for his mastery of Bud Powell's style, but here he also draws on his considerable knowledge of Thelonious Monk's artistry. His own voice and advanced technical skills, combined with his understanding of Monk's approach, go a long way in explaining the lasting appeal of this recording.

The final piece in the puzzle is drummer Lex Humphries. After some very productive years from 1958 to 1963, his discography seemed to drop off a cliff—like he was abducted by aliens or something. Who knows, maybe he was—ten years later he briefly reappeared in Sun Ra's Space Is the Place (Blue Thumb Records, 1973), only to disappear again (with respect to his discography). On Eastern Sounds, his brushwork is clever and elegant, his feather-light touch on cymbals and sensitive brushing imbue the sound of "Don't Blame Me" with a sensuous, almost tactile quality—not something often associated with drums. His playing was understated and his talent underrated; it's lamentable that someone this gifted didn't leave a larger musical legacy.

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 scales—you 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 blues—but back to Lateef.
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