Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Listening to Prestige 255: Yusef Lateef

Yusef Lateef is, among his fellow Detroiters, a late arrival on the New York scene, and not because he represented a younger generation. Not at all. He was 37 when he first came to New York in the spring of 1957 to record for Savoy and Verve, and then to make this album for Prestige. And he wouldn't actually move Eest for good until 1960.

He had not been entirely homebound. He'd started playing professionally at 18, touring with swing bands and eventually with Dizzy Gillespie, but by 1950 concerns for his wife's health brought him off the road and home to Detroit, where he became an important figure, not only for his musicianship but also his cultural leadership. He was a founder and vice president of the New Music Society, an organization that reached out to younger jazz musicians and gave them a place to grow and develop. 1950 was also the year he converted to Islam.

His late arrival on the New York scene is part of the reason why, although he'd been an active musician for over 20 years by the time the decade turned, he is more associated with the jazz of the Sixties than the Fifties. The rest of that reason is his free-flying creativity, which seem like a Sixties thing, but was part of Lateef's creative personality even back in Detroit. Pianist Terry Pollard recalls that
He sometimes had me blow into a pop bottle. He'd fill it with water...to get different sounds, to make the song sound like Yusef wanted it to be. And so I ended up blowing into these pop bottles. I didn't know how, and I would get dizzy every night.*
While he was still in Detroit, Lateef began to experiment with Middle Eastern music, turned on to it by a fellow assembly line worker at the Chrysler plant. He
realized I had to widen my canvas of expression. I spent many hours in the library...studying the music of other cultures. I met a man [at Chrysler] from Syria and he asked me if I knew about the rabat.
He would bring all of this knowledge, and all the instruments he was experimenting with, to his New
York recording sessions, along with his Detroit band from their regular gig at Klein's Showbar.
We were so tight we were able to go to New York on off nights and do two albums, easily...We got off Sunday nights and jumped in the...station wagon, and we would drive all the way to Hackensack, New Jersey, and record on Monday and we'd turn right back to Detroit and open up on Tuesday.
The October session with its twelve tunes would have been an impressive feat for a group motoring over from Weehawken, let alone five guys and their instruments packed into a station wagon and barreling in from Detroit. Impressive for the sheer amount of work, impressive for how good it was, and really impressive for its range.

"Playful Flute," the first tune laid down, was composed by brass player Wilbur Harden, but it embodies Lateef's love of Middle Eastern music, learned in the library, from his fellow Chrysler worker, and certainly also from his pilgrimages to Mecca. It incorporates the flute and the argol, or arghul, a two-tubed woodwind instrument that dates back to ancient Egypt.

"Taboo" is one of those tunes that's always used when a movie soundtrack wants something Latin and exotic. Either that or Margarita Lecuona's only other hit, "Babalu." Or one of the compositions of her cousin Ernesto, like "The Breeze and I" or "Malaguena." To refresh my memory, I listened to versions by Les Baxter (boring) and Cuban bandleader Jack Costanzo (not boring). But no one brings to it quite what Lateef does. From Oliver Jackson's arresting drum intro to Lateef's flute work, he turns what's generally an ersatz exotic into a genuine exotic. Which is no small feat.

And, of course, I'm not so much interested in a critique of the Lecuona cousins' oeuvre as I am in following my reactions to Lateef's range and the courage of his choices. "Taboo" is a tune that could easily be dismissed as kitsch. Not so here. And it's interesting to consider how it might have been chosen.

This was a quintet that Lateef held together for five years, working a regular five-night-a-week gig in a very hip jazz town. Five nights a week for five years means you work out a lot of material, and sometimes you're just goofing around. Hey, let's take a tune that's straight from Squaresville, and see how we can mess around with it. And if you're Yusef Lateef, and you're playing what some have described as "world music before there was world music," even goofing around can lead to new discoveries.

"Anastasia" might have been another one of those tunes. From an Oscar-nominated movie soundtrack by Alfred Newman, it had become a pop hit for Pat Boone, and you can't go much deeper into Squaresville than that. Here, Lateef does the really unexpected by staying quite faithful to the melody, but giving it a bit of a Middle Eastern twist, and a moody cast. Making it new.

Lateef's own compositions for this date are as eclectic as his covers. "Ecaps," in spite of its spacey title, is pretty much rooted on earth, with bop-influenced flute and tenor playing, and a very nice boppish piano solo by Hugh Lawson. Others range from boppish to proto-world music. And then there's "Love and Humor."

Most of the odd instruments listed in the session notes come into play here, including the balloons handed to Wilbur Harden and Hugh Lawson, for that unmistakeable sound of two balloons being rubbed together -- and Lawson is given Terry Pollard's 7-Up bottles. I couldn't help but think, as all of these unusual sounds wove their way into the mix, what kind of a challenge this session must have been for Rudy Van Gelder. The mood may be (sort of) Middle Eastern, with Lateef playing flute and argol, but the instrumentation is worthy of Spike Jones, who also knew something about love and humor. Lateef's humor is a little more subtle, and this is a very special cut, moving some distance away from jazz as we knew it, expanding our musical vocabulary. Lateef had used some of these instruments and sound effects on his earlier Savoy albums, but nothing quite like this.

I wonder if Bob Weinstock had entirely been expecting "Love and Humor." But he didn't shy away from it. It went onto his first Lateef release, The Sounds of Yusef, along with "Playful Flute," "Buckingham," "Meditation," and "Take the 'A' Train," and not only that, it was released as a 45 b/w "Meditation."

"Taboo," "All Alone," "Lambert's Joint," "Mahabs," "Minor Mood" and "Anastasia" all went onto the New Jazz album Other Sounds, released in 1959. "Ecaps" was held off until the 1960 New Jazz Cry!-Tender, the rest of which came from a later and much different session.

* This and all the other quotes -- in fact, much of the Detroit information -- from Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert's amazing book, Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit.

No comments: