Few artists ever traveled farther while keeping a foothold in the blues.
Yusef Lateef, the pioneering multi-reedist and composer born 100 years ago this week, could never be constrained, neither by limits nor by labels. He was a serious cultural hybridist long before the imprecise term “world music” entered circulation. And much like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, who admired him even as he looked up to them, he was a lifelong seeker.
As Mark Stryker recently put it in his book Jazz From Detroit: “Lateef did not change the course of jazz, but he pushed at its seams, cultivating a sage individualism and experimental streak that continued into his 90s.” Indeed, this was true up until Lateef’s death in 2013, at 93.
So for this edition of Take Five, we celebrate Lateef with a handful of choice tracks — by no means a comprehensive portrait, but one offered with love.
“Yusef’s Mood” (Jazz Moods, 1957)
Yusef Lateef made his debut album, Jazz Mood, for Savoy in 1957. He was in his mid-30s then, hardly a newcomer, and already in possession of a clear identity. The album features elements of nonwestern folk music, framed at the time as “exotic,” but on this tune — which features some choice Curtis Fuller on trombone, a soulful Hugh Lawson on piano, and the rock-steady Louis Hayes on drums — Lateef locks into a hard-bop groove.
“Oasis” (The Golden Flute, 1966)
Lateef was a superb flutist, and that’s the obvious focus of his Impulse! album The Golden Flute, recorded in 1966 and released the following year. Along with the aforementioned Lawson, he enlists bassist Herman Wright and drummer Roy Brooks, Jr. — and, on an original composition called “Oasis,” some tonalities that look to the east, before a cruising swing kicks in.
“Blues for the Orient” (Live at Ronnie Scott’s 1966)
“Blues for the Orient” is a pointedly titled theme that Lateef introduced on the 1961 album Eastern Sounds. In this smoldering live performance, from a gig at Ronnie Scott’s in London, Lateef plays the tune on a shehnai, a double-reed instrument sometimes described as “the Indian oboe,” with a house band consisting of pianist Stan Tracey, double bassist Rick Laird and drummer Bill Eyden.
“Eastern Market” (Yusef Lateef’s Detroit, 1969)
The title of “Eastern Market” may suggest a bazaar in the Orient, but this tune — from a funky Atlantic LP called Yusef Lateef’s Detroit — actually refers to the historic open-air farmer’s market in Lateef’s adopted hometown. The leader plays flute on the track, whose assets include a backbeat by Bernard Purdie, rhythm guitar by Eric Gale, and a trumpet section composed of Jimmy Owens, Danny Moore and Snooky Young.
“The Mood” (Hikima, 1983)
Lateef traveled to Nigeria in the early 1980s, on a research fellowship that was certain to yield musical discoveries. Among them were the tracks he recorded with local musicians, only recently released as the album Hikima: Creativity. Listen to “The Mood,” which features him on tenor saxophone against a thrum of voices and drums, and it’s impossible not to hear the joy as well as the wisdom in Lateef’s enduring vision of cultural exchange.