Yusef Lateef: R.I.P., Gentle Giant (Revisited)


We have lost one of the great, indeed one of the greatest, ones.

Yusef Lateef, aged 93 years young, was finally stopped by cancer on December 23.

I say “finally” because Lateef was so positive, productive and relentlessly creative, it seemed like he might never slow down, much less die.

How productive was he over how many years? Check this out.

And definitely check out this excellent overview of his life and career, via Peter Keepnews.

There are many ways beyond his impressive biography to celebrate him, but for me, much of what he did and who he was can be summarized by one word signifying one year: 1957. Lateef’s output in 1957, like that of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane –not shabby company– must rank amongst the most astonishing bursts of energy and ecstasy we’ve ever witnessed. Of course, he did not exactly burst onto the scene: he had been working on his music and his vision for over a decade, and once the opportunity arose, he struck quickly and that initial momentum scarcely slackened for the next decade. After that, his recordings were seldom infrequent and never uninspired.

Here is a useful excerpt from the Keepnews piece:

by the time he made his first records as a leader, in 1957, he had begun establishing a reputation as a decidedly unconventional musician.

He began expanding his instrumental palette by doubling on flute, by no means a common jazz instrument in those years. He later added oboe, bassoon and non-Western wind instruments like the shehnai and arghul. “My attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played by the same old horns,” he once told DownBeat magazine. “When I looked into those other cultures, I found that good instruments existed there.”

Indeed, Lateef was not merely expanding his instrumental arsenal, he was upgrading his compositional acumen. The result is a series of works that are grounded in jazz, certainly (a word/description he did not endorse), and not infrequently based on blues motifs, but also far-ranging and far-reaching. As many have pointed out, Lateef was creating, if not inventing, World Music long before the concept was known and/or imitated. It’s one thing to introduce such an unlikely instrument as the oboe into jazz songs that could still swing; Lateef was integrating sounds from the Far East into music in novel ways that even the mighty Coltrane emulated, years later. Like Sun Ra, Lateef was hearing things and imagining worlds that still seem exotic and ahead of their time; that they came in a world that was so black and white (mostly White) in the mid-to-late ’50s is staggering, bordering on inconceivable. Like the best music from our best musicians, it is also miraculous. No need for excessive description; just listen to to it.

It has always been, for me, at once exceptional and inspiring to consider Lateef, who was barely scraping by financially as a full-time musician circa ’57, road tripping from Detroit (a city he would celebrate later in his career) to The Big Apple on a random weekend to record yet another masterpiece. The fact that, later in his career and already an acknowledged master, he refused for a time to play live in clubs were alcohol and cigarette smoke were pervasive, augments his street cred. He was not faking it, and his personal life and of course his music are a living soundtrack to a life of honesty and exploration. It was, perhaps more than anything else, Yusef’s insatiable need to discover and learn that make his albums endure, that make him such a worthy role model. To be certain, any musician or artist would be wise to emulate his inimitable discipline and humility; but any human being who wants to connect with others, understand more of the world (and, inevitably, his or herself) can learn a lot from the nine decades and change of evidence Lateef supplied us. He was real, and his soulful vision will keep him amongst us so long as people are capable of paying attention.

Here are ten tracks (with two bonus live tracks that are AMAZING) for both the uninitiated and the aficionado; songs to savor and songs that hopefully inspire a deeper dive into this great man’s vast catalog.

Go peacefully and sleep well, Gentle Giant.


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