Yusef Lateef – The Blue Yusef Lateef
(Atlantic/Music on Vinyl MOVLP 1139. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)
Recorded by Yusef Lateef (1920-2013) in April 1968 at RCA studios in New York, some seven years after his magnum opus Eastern Sounds, this is a standout album and one of Lateef's very best. Just reissued on audiophile 180g LP by the Music On Vinyl label, it’s a tremendously welcome revival. The Blue Yusef Lateef features eight compositions by Lateef himself, played by a crack group of musicians, a surprising number of whom — like their leader — hail from Detroit. Guitarist Kenny Burrell and alto sax man Sonny Red were even born in Motor City.
The opening cut, Juba Juba has a funky and ethnic African sound that would become very fashionable in the late 1960s and early 70s and which anticipates works like Quincy Jones’s Gula Matari by several years. The mood is set by a minimal, measured drumbeat from Roy Brooks and the woody rasping of Yusef Lateef’s flute. A wordless, keening female vocal — both eerie and erotic —contributes considerably to the ambience. But the real stalwart here is the wonderful, wailing harmonica of Buddy Lucas. This again is distinctly reminiscent of Toots Thielemans in his work with Quincy Jones a few years later, on Gula Matari and elsewhere. So much so as to suggest that a great deal of Quincy Jones’s African schtick (and a wonderful schtick it is) was actually lifted wholesale from this prescient and groundbreaking album by Yusef Lateef.
As the piece develops Hugh Lawson joins on spare, glistening piano and begins to give a more European musical flavour, as if the mood is moving north, and the unspoken vocals suddenly form words — a hypnotically repeated ‘Freedom’. The female vocal unit here are The Sweet Inspirations, a stellar and seminal backing group who had sung on Van Morrison’s hit Brown Eyed Girl the previous year. They consist, at this stage of their career, of Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell and none other than Cissy Houston. The singers are a major asset to these sessions. The track ends with Lateef’s rich, ripe, buzzing flute, cutting sharply through the mesmeric textures of the group.
Like It Is takes us into Horace Silver territory with a hypnotic groove and features Yusef Lateef himself on the exotic percussion — a wooden scratcher in this case. Lateef later developed into a multi instrumentalist with such an appetite for the outré that he would eventually forsake the reed instruments which he played with such virtuosity. But here he’s performing to his considerable strengths on a ululating flute so expressive it seems for an instant to be a human voice worshipfully whooping. Integrated into this piece, with startling success, is a string quartet conducted by William Fischer. It wraps around the flute and provides a marvellous, melancholy, autumnal feel. The string players are unnamed on the album but fairly certainly consist of Selwart Clarke and James Tryon on violin, Alfred Brown viola and Kermit Moore on cello — all of whom would play on Yusef Lateef’s Detroit the following year.
But the outstanding music here is the broad, rich and glorious tenor from Lateef, developing a harsh inflection with an Asiatic flavour reminiscent of his masterpiece, Eastern Sounds. There are tantalising fragments of piano from Hugh Lawson throughout, and the tune concludes with a gorgeous sound which at first appears to be the Sweet Inspirations again, but is in fact the gentle touch of that flute returning, played with such tender virtuosity by Lateef that it is momentarily quite indistinguishable from a softly sensual human voice
Othelia offers barrelhouse piano and a very different take on the harmonica from Buddy Lucas — straight-ahead, driving blues. Lateef plays sax like it’s a raucous, sweaty country dance. Back Home offers big, bold assertive statement on sax, falling into a call and response pattern with Lucas’s rippling, raucous harmonica. It has tremendous urgency, propelled by Lateef’s high-note playing. Here Richard Allen ‘Blue’ Mitchell on trumpet is closely shadowed by the sax to give a double-image effect before the trumpeter drops out and the sax resumes a central position, confident and virile and game to improvise forever as the track fades out.
The only faintly false note on this moody and magnificent album is Moon Cup, which at first sounds like a faux Japanese excursion with Lateef on koto and — highly questionable — Nipponese vocals. It is in fact a chant in Tagalog — a dialect of the Philippines — celebrating love and brotherhood. But you ain’t going to be dancing to it any time soon. However, any excursions in Tagalog plainsong are soon obscured by the beauty of the remaining music, such as Sun Dog, which has a groovy Latin flavour anticipating Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground, another jazz classic on the Atlantic label which would appear the following year. And Six Miles Next Door, a showcase for Kenny Burrell’s tasty, bouncing electric guitar. One of the most conventional tracks on the session, and also one of the most enjoyable.
This is an exemplary reissue from MOV, on high quality, noise-free vinyl with great fidelity and presence. A sheer delight both sonically and musically, and hopefully the first of a strong reissue program of Yusef Lateef’s finest moments.