Monday, August 09, 2010

album of the day: Eastern Sounds

Yusef Lateef was a multi-instrumentalist, world music pioneer, and student of culture before any of that was at all cool. This 1961 album wasn't all that early an entry into world jazz (the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz vogues had had their day in the 1950s, and bossa nova was in full swing, if you'll pardon the pun). Lateef had spent several years already working middle Eastern and Asian influences into jazz, as well - though no one had much followed along. But really, the main accomplishment of Eastern Sounds is that Lateef has made "Eastern" intervals and rhythms sound so much at home in jazz, or else jazz to sound at home in them, I'm no sure which.

If you're a foodie, you might even be tempted to call this music "fusion," but that means something else in jazz than it does in food. Call it beautiful, sweet, and a little sad, and that'd be more accurate.

The album starts with the inquisitive, sprightly "Plum Blossom," which has something very floral about it, actually. Ernie Farrow's bassline, played on a rabat, plunks more than walks, and Lateef introduces the quiet theme on a kind of Chinese flute that only plays 5 notes, before Barry Harris on piano and Lex Humphries on drums fill out the sound. It sounds rather alien, rather outside of the shape and scope of cool jazz (which is sort of Lateef's home territory), and with just 5 notes, it's remarkable how much Lateef gets from the flute.

Every tune on the album has some hint or suggestion of this Eastern theme to it. Nothing is played in quite the conventional Western way, either by progression or by melodic conception or by rhythm. Or by instrumentation. How many other jazz oboists can you name? Me neither.

After "Plum Blossom," for me the highlights of the album are "Don't Blame Me," a fairly heartbreaking ballad, and the one tune played at all conventionally; "Blues for the Orient," a blues on oboe; the robust "Snafu;" the somber "Purple Flower;" and the subtle, exploring "The Three Faces of Balal." These capture best, aside from "Plum Blossom," the things I love most about this record, and about Lateef's music in general.

For one thing, in his prime, as presented here, he was a tremendous player with great range, terrific sensibilities and a lot of emotional depth. If I have one demand of a jazz saxophonist, it's to break my heart. The quavering vulnerability of "Plum Blossom," and the cry or break in a note on the more mainstream tenor songs, fulfill that demand.

Lateef was also far more successful than most, especially in this era, of not only playing "Eastern" music in jazz settings, but of making it work as jazz and as something alien to jazz. If that seems a little paradoxical, then good, I mean it to be.

While his music career continued, in the 1960s and 1970s, Lateef studied music and music education, and earned an Ed.D. His focus throughout has been on his own theory of music as well as comparative understanding of world music. I'm biased, I supposed, because he's one of my favorites, but I think you can hear a sort of intellectual respect and interest in his approach to non-Western music as well, an open and completely genuine curiosity, that's refreshing to at least one cynical academic.

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