In his New York Times obituary of Yusef Lateef – who died on December 23rd at the age of 93 – Peter Keepnews describes him as a “decidedly unconventional musician,” and quotes Lateef as saying “My attempts to experiment with new instruments grew out of the monotony of hearing the same old sounds played by the same old horns. When I looked into those other cultures, I found that good instruments existed there.”
Keepnews also writes that Lateef “professed to find the word ‘jazz’ limiting and degrading; he preferred ‘autophysiopsychic music,’ a term he invented. He further distanced himself from the jazz mainstream in 1980 when he declared that he would no longer perform any place where alcohol was served. ‘Too much blood, sweat and tears have been spilled creating this music to play it where people are smoking, drinking and talking,’ he explained to The Boston Globe in 1999.”
Lateef was indeed unique and colorful and mind-expanding. He was an artist who – along with fellow Impulse label-mates John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders – many of us would often turn to when we wanted to expand our way of listening and our actual “thinking” about listening. Hearing Lateef play jazz oboe was indeed a way to get outside the “monotony” of those “same old horns.”
Known as “The Masked Announcer” while working as a DJ at Philadelphia’s WHAT- FM radio, the late Joel Dorn – who would eventually become a prominent jazz record executive — wrote the liner notes to Lateef’s 1963 Impulse recording called Jazz ‘Round the World. The notes serve as a fitting reminder of Lateef’s contribution to the expansion of the sound of jazz…
Yusef Lateef is an imposing figure. Large in stature, he evokes the image of a gentle giant. On the stand he is the picture of quiet passion. Eyes closed, rocking back and forth with the beat, he is intense and at the same time surrounded by an aura of serenity. Even when involved in the most visceral solo he never has inclinations toward the frantic. He is the embodiment of the mature musician who has mastered his instrument yet is filled with the enthusiasm of youth in his musical explorations.
He is at the same time simple and complex. Simple, in that musically, he has the ability to reduce elements to their basics. Complex, in that he draws on many cultures and sources for his musical expression. It is because of his complexity that this album is a success. In the hands of a lesser artist “Jazz ‘Round The World” would just be a gimmicky theme for an album. But with Usef there is the ability to assimilate the musical techniques and attitudes of other cultures. Hence his renditions of India or Raisins and Almonds do not involve vaudevillian snake charmer or Ziggy Elman frielach approaches. Rather, he adapts them to the jazz idiom in the same manner as would an Indian or an Israeli. It is because of his simplicity that the performances are shorn of the unnecessary and as near an end product as a record date will allow.
If jazz musicians were graded on seriousness of purpose as are school children, Yusef would be at the head of the class. While many of his confreres in jazz find intermission between sets in a club the time to socialize around the bar, for Yusef this is a time to steal away to the dressing room or a quiet corner and practice or annotate some musical thoughts that cross his mind.
These notes are not meant to deify Mr. Lateef. He is not a saint or a sage come to save the world. He is a working jazz musician. But his adoption of a new faith did more than change his name from William Evans to Yusef Lateef. For it has given him a perspective and conception that many of his contemporaries lack. He has a stability and purposefulness about him that the American press seems not to confer on the jazz musician.
At this writing Yusef, for the past year or so, has been a member of Cannonball Adderly’s (sic) sextet. It has been a period mutually beneficial to both men. Yusef’s presence in the group has been no mean factor in the expansion of their musical horizons. For Yusef there has come the opportunity of exposure to a much greater audience and, of course, the acclaim that his talents deserve.
The universality of his approach is also unique in jazz. He at times has a tone on tenor that is reminiscent of the post-war rhythm and blues tenormen. Yet he is still able to incorporate this approach with the delicate music of the East. And while the ability to play many instruments is no criteria for greatness, the ability to master many is. Yusef is as proficient on tenor, oboe, and a variety of flutes as he is on such obscure instruments as the Chinese Plum Blossom (a globular clay flute with five note range).
Picasso said that, “The nearer an artist approaches greatness the more successful his treatment of simple themes.” This album consists of simple themes; folk songs or folk-like songs from around the world. Yusef has managed by using understatement as an embellishment to create new beauty yet not destroy the inherent beauty of the melodies.
Picasso also said that, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” And on this album Yusef Lateef is a “stone soul-washer.”
– From the liner notes to Jazz ‘Round The World, by Yusef Lateef
Liner Notes by Joel Dorn
Recorded December 19 and 20, 1963
Yusef Lateef plays “Trouble in Mind,” a 1963 live performance with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet