June 24, 2024

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Yusef Lateef – Legendary saxophonist. He also painted and wrote short stories and two novellas: Video

09.10. – Happy Birthday !!! In the uncharted territory where world music and jazz converge, the line separating deep mystical expression from showy exotica is often very thin.

Though Yusef Lateef, the composer and multi-instrumentalist who made a rare New York appearance at Symphony Space on Friday evening, makes music that sometimes sounds synonymous with 1950’s Hollywood snake charmer’s music, he usually manages to stay on a higher lyrical plane.

Mr. Lateef closed the World Music Institute’s Improvisations II Festival on Friday evening. He was joined by the bassist Cecil McBee and the Los Angeles-based quartet Eternal Wind to perform an extended 12-movement work, entitled simply ”The Suite.” Programmatically, ”The Suite,” whose movements are subtitled in various languages, is an attempt to evoke the common ties that bind the peoples of the world to each other and to nature through a stunning range of world music instrumentation.

Over the course of the concert, Mr. Lateef alternated among six instruments, including the tenor saxophone, bamboo hand drums and several kinds of flute. The wide instrumental repertory of Eternal Wind runs from trumpet and guitar to a formidable arsenal of African, Indian, Latin American and Asian wind and percussion instruments. The group’s semi-improvisatory style pointedly juxtaposes Western and non-Western modes in loosely connected pieces that evoke a natural world of wind-rustled grasslands and grazing animals.

”The Suite,” which followed an atmospheric opening set by Eternal Wind, used not only live musicians but also dabs of prerecorded electronic music whose textures ran from the semi-orchestral to video arcade gimmickry. Subdued for the most part, the work is organized around layers of wind and percussion instrumentation that constantly shift around a soft, blues-flavored bass. Charles Moore’s muted trumpet solos injected the strongest element of hard-edged urbanity, with its bite softened by veils of percussion and by Mr. Lateef’s sensual flute. Though diffuse in concept and structure, the ensemble’s virtuosity and commitment lent the work a gentle, sweeping sense of cohesion.

Long before cross-cultural fusions involving jazz musicians became the norm, Yusef Lateef, who has died aged 93, made a point of using Middle Eastern and Asian instruments on his albums. Apart from brief stints as a sideman, he continued to bring different types of music together in groups appearing under his own name. Acclaimed for his skill on various reeds, from saxophone to oboe and well beyond, he increasingly developed as a composer both in and out of jazz.

Born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he was raised in Detroit, where the family name was changed to Evans. He began as an alto saxophonist, switching to the tenor while at high school. Experience in local bands was followed by a move to New York after another Detroit tenorman, Lucky Thompson, recommended him to the bandleader Lucky Millinder. He later worked with the trumpeters Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie. It was during his spell in Gillespie’s saxophone section between 1949 and 1950 that he converted to Islam and changed his name. His studies of the Qur’an led to his abiding interest in non‑western music.

Returning to Detroit in 1950, he studied music at what is now Wayne State University and gained a reputation as a leader in the increasingly talked-about Detroit jazz scene. His main instruments remained tenor saxophone and flute, though in the late 1950s he broadened his skills, notably after studying with the first oboist of the city’s symphony orchestra. For tonal quality alone, he became probably the most impressive jazz exponent of the oboe.

That period coincided with a personal recording boom and, by including instruments rarely if ever heard in a jazz context, Lateef (nicknamed “Teefi” or “Teefski” by colleagues) gave his music an identity that distinguished it from the profusion of hard-bop albums flooding the market. His saxophone playing was firm and direct in the manner of Dexter Gordon, with Lateef adding touches of melodic ambiguity clearly inspired by non-western scales.

If the constant switching occasionally distracts, the best moments from the albums he recorded for Savoy, Prestige and Riverside, such as The Centaur and the Phoenix and Cry!-Tender (both 1960), retain their potency. The interest they aroused led him to return to New York, where he worked intermittently with Charles Mingus, appearing on the Pre-Bird recording in 1960 (reissued as Mingus Revisited), and later joined Cannonball Adderley for about a year, being replaced by Charles Lloyd. Otherwise, he led his own groups; recorded for Impulse and Atlantic, including the excellent Live at Pep’s album in 1964; taught music (in 1975, he had gained a doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst); and was increasingly commissioned to compose for symphony orchestras or for radio bands. He also painted and wrote short stories and two novellas.

In the early 1980s, he was a senior research fellow at a university in Nigeria, where he studied the flute associated with the Fulani people. Several small-group albums from the 1990s on his own label, as well as the 1993 recording, by his quintet and the Cologne Radio Orchestra, of his African-American Epic Suite, show how his tenor solos grew freer over the years. However, even the most fervent passages never spill over into angry braying. His 1987 album Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony, on which he played a dazzling array of instruments, won him a Grammy for best new-age recording.

A fascinating question posed by his music is to what extent, if at all, this outwardly most serious and solemn performer had his tongue in his cheek (one of the references he cited at the end of an article was “James, King. Holy Bible”). Rejecting jazz as a term, Lateef coined the tongue-twister “autophysiopsychic” to describe music that comes from the physical, mental and spiritual self. The National Endowment for the Arts made him an American Jazz Master in 2010.

He was predeceased by his first wife, Tahira, and a daughter and a son. He is survived by his second wife, Ayesha, his son Yusef and a granddaughter.

Yusef Lateef, jazz musician, born 9 October 1920; died 23 December 2013.

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