Blue Notes: Yusef Lateef

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 5:26pm

After the deaths of Jim Hall and Stan Tracey, it turned out 2013 hadn't quite finished with the great and the good of jazz.

On December 23 we also lost Yusef Lateef, 93, a pioneering musician who, in addition to being a fine tenor saxophonist and prolific composer, mastered a wide range of other instruments seldom or never heard in a jazz context before.

Whether some of Lateef's music should be considered jazz is debatable - he seems to have been ambivalent about the word himself - but he was among the first musicians generally thought of as jazzmen to take a serious interest in what we now call "world music".

He adopted an array of Asian and Middle Eastern instruments such as the shehnai and shofar, as well as playing the flute and bassoon - both instruments more usually heard in Western classical music than in jazz - and played them all with the conviction and authority he brought to his distinctive tenor work.

Lateef was not the name he was born with, or the one he originally performed under. Born William Emanuel Huddleston, he was known as Bill Evans when he played his early sideman gigs, but is not to be confused with the pianist, or the younger saxophonist, with the same name.

In 1950 while performing with Dizzy Gillespie's band he became a Muslim, and adopted the name he would perform and record under for the rest of his long life.

Lateef began recording as a leader in 1956, and had a hit in 1961 with a version of the Love Theme from the Stanley Kubrick movie of the previous year, Spartacus. He continued to work as a sideman, however, notably with Charles Mingus and Canonball Adderley, in the latter's band performing alongside keyboard player Joe Zawinul, another jazz musician who would eventually record world-music-dominated albums.

Some of Lateef's use of unconventional instruments was superficial exoticism, but he helped popularise an interest in Eastern music among jazzmen, including, it has been argued, John Coltrane. Like Coltrane he saw jazz improvisation as a form of spiritual quest.

Lateef's music veered between bold experimentation and, particularly in the last three decades of his life, New Age blandness.

However, he could always hold his own with other forceful saxophonists, and remained influential as a composer, performer and educator, holding academic posts at universities in both the United States and Nigeria. He was also a writer and painter.

Lateef would probably have been in sympathy with a fundraising initiative involving many members of Hong Kong's community of jazz musicians, in the form of two nights of performance at Grappa's Cellar under the banner "The Hong Kong Jazz Family Fest" on January 10 and 11. The gigs are intended to raise funds for the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School (JCSRS) for students aged five to 19 with special needs. The aim is to raise HK$800,000 to provide "an independent life skills room and develop an expressive arts space" for the school.

Artists appearing on Friday night include Rhian Anderson, maRK quartet, Gadjo Station, Orlando and Yanice Bonzi, Fusion 5, Anders Nelsson, Ginger Kwan, Jennifer Palor, Dan LaVelle, Howard McCrary, Justin Siu, Oliver Smith and Soul Room Jazz.

On Saturday, Michelle Carillo, Jezrael Lucero, Johnny Abraham, Michael Yuen, Saiwai Liang, Oliver Smith, Skip Moy, Eugene Pao, Ted Lo, Anthony Fernandez, Bobby Taylor, Mark Peter, Yoyong Aquino, João Marcos Mascarenhas, Paulo Levi and Acusar Latina will appear.

Each night runs from 8pm to midnight.

Take Three

Three albums featuring differing facets of the talent of Yusef Lateef.

  • Eastern Sounds (1961, Original Jazz Classics): a quartet album featuring pianist Barry Harris, double bassist Ernie Farrow and drummer Lex Humphries. In addition to tenor saxophone - the instrument on which he most consistently excelled - Lateef plays flute, oboe and xun.
  • Live at Peps (1964, Impulse): Lateef blows up a storm with a small group comprising Mike Nock on piano, Richard Williams on trumpet, Ernie Farrow on bass, and James Black on drums. The exotic alternative instruments are present - shehnai, bamboo flute and argol, as well as oboe and regular flute - but it is the tenor saxophone parts that sound most exciting 50 years on.
  • Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony (1987, Rhino Atlantic): this won Lateef a Grammy for best New Age album - and although it does have considerable jazz content he was apparently content with that categorisation, which reflected the spiritual dimensions of his music.