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Top 10 Favorite Yusef Lateef Tracks

Yusef Lateef, who recently passed on at the age of 93, has had a profound influence on my music both in terms of the specific sounds in his recorded legacy and on a more conceptual level. In a world in which musicians so often have alliances that imply a certain disdain for “competing” factions, Yusef Lateef’s openness and breadth of skills and interests have been matched by few jazz artists (if I can even accurately use that term without setting inappropriate limits). He would have a place in jazz history as a powerful tenor saxophonist, but he was also an important flutist. And oboist. He would have a place in history as part of the Detroit school of second-generation beboppers (alongside Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Burrell, Charles McPherson, Marcus Belgrave, Barry Harris and SO many others), but his explorations also led him in directions both more experimental and more directly blues-based than that. In addition, while many musicians of his era became enamored of Latin music, Yusef’s exploration of other (and especially non-Western) cultures led him to incorporate sounds, instruments and approaches foreign to jazz, in turn paving the way for others seeking this kind of global musical unity. He was both highly spiritual and profoundly intellectual and I genuinely hope that both his music and his approach to it are remembered for a long, long time.

In the meantime, here’s a sampler of some of his music that I love, presented in chronological order:

1 )  “Yusef” by Donald Byrd (from Byrd Jazz, 1955)

This song is technically under the leadership of Donald Byrd, but Donald himself steps aside to give Yusef the spotlight on a tender ballad in a quartet setting. We hear Yusef’s warm-toned tenor at its most lyrical (and, dare I say, traditional) on this composition by the group’s pianist, fellow Detroit native Barry Harris.

2 ) “Metaphor” (from Jazz Moods, 1957)

Alongside another fellow Detroiter, trombonist Curtis Fuller, this swinging track gives us one of our earliest glimpses of Yusef’s command and distinctive personality as a flute soloist. Pianist Hugh Lawson and bassist (and longtime Lateef associate) Ernie Farrow also get brief but tasty solos in.

3 ) “Love Theme from ‘Spartacus’” (from Eastern Sounds, 1961)

Though not his first recorded appearance on the instrument, this is our first chance to address Yusef’s mastery of the oboe, which I would declare unmatched in jazz history. Certainly this was sometimes used to evoke the “Eastern sounds” referenced in the album’s title, but here he gives a beautifully lyrical performance of a popular song from a then-recent American film. Lyrical is also the operative word for Barry Harris here.

4 )  “Water Pistol” (from Into Somethin’, 1961)

I actually was turned on to this “rhythm changes” song (and, subsequently, this album) by my friend, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, who recorded it on his own debut album, Times Change. While this album once again features Barry Harris (in the culmination of many sessions together, before a near-decade of not recording together), but Barry sits out this one. As such, Yusef blows in a piano-less trio with Herman Wright and an up and coming drummer from Detroit named Elvin Jones. The openness of the texture allows us to hear the maturity of Yusef’s concept as he deftly weaves between bop-based harmonic navigation and more modern sounds.

5 ) “P Bouk” by Cannonball Adderley (from Cannonball in Europe, 1962)

Cannonball’s Sextet was a wonderful fit. It provided Yusef with a high-energy, passionate and tight-knit ensemble and his presence added a new depth of color and approach to the group. All of that sounds very academic until you listen to the band WAIL on tunes like this, a Lateef composition that he also recorded on his Into Something and Live at Pep’s (Vol. 2) records. Cannonball and Nat Adderley of course also play smokin’ solos, lighting even more fire under Yusef before he burns on tenor.

6 ) “See See Rider” (from Live at Pep’s, 1964)

When you think of instruments most associated with gutbucket blues, it is unlikely that oboe ranks alongside harmonica or guitar. That is, unless you are as much of a Yusef Lateef fan as I am. Hearing him moan and cry here shows that although they may not teach the instrument this way in classical conservatories, it was built to play this music. Trumpeter Richard Williams plays a nice, short solo here as well.

7 ) “Like It Is” (from The Blue Yusef Lateef, 1968)

I’m indulging myself with two songs from this, one of my favorite recordings by anyone, period. Through The Blue Yusef Lateef we hear a wide variety of textures, all of them very soulful and yet all of them modern and challenging in different ways. The piece is haunting and we get our first taste Yusef’s writing for strings, which are deep and soulful without any syrupy undertones. His own playing is highly emotional as well, first on bamboo flute, then on tenor.

8 ) “Moon Cup” (from The Blue Yusef Lateef, 1968)

Any questions one might have had about the breadth of Yusef’s enthomusicological curiosity were presumably put to rest here. Yusef wails on flute, plays a mean koto and spends most of the piece as a vocalist. Delivering plainchant. Filipino chanting, in fact, in tagalog. Over a rollicking jazz rhythm section. And it all sounds totally coherent. Case closed.

9 )“Nubian Lady” (from The Gentle Giant, 1971)

Yusef, playing flute here, brings the FUNK. Alongside several musicians not normally associated with backbeat music (Ray Bryant and longtime band members Albert “Tootie” Heath and Kenny Barron, who composed this tune), Yusef lays it down. If his track record for soulful music weren’t so rich, one might be inclined to accuse him of making a commercial gesture here. But it is, and the results are genuine and deep.

10 ) “Second Movement: Andante” (from Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony, 1988)

I will state here that it is with some ambivalence that I’m representing Yusef’s latter-day work without including anything from his fruitful output in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Adam Rudolph – check that stuff out, including (if you can) some of the harder-to-find recordings on the YAL label. Here, though we have Yusef as a sort of one-man-band, playing flute atop a rich synthesizer texture. Do the late-80s synths sound dated? Heck yeah, but this composition is so lovely and the performance so earnest that I find myself not caring.

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