Yusef Lateef's Worldwide Jazz Journey Reissued on Vinyl

Yusef Lateef was an avid explorer of musics and philosophies from all over the world.
Yusef Lateef was an avid explorer of musics and philosophies from all over the world. Riverside Records album cover detail
As vinyl continues its unlikely resurgence for a music media format, audiophiles are drooling over their turntables (though likely quick to wipe it off) at the hundreds of albums — many out of print for decades — being reissued.

And not just like they were originally. Many are coming out on heavier 180 gram vinyl, super remastered from the original tapes, packaged handsomely with new liner notes, and printed in limited numbers.

Craft Recordings cover
That’s the case with Craft Recordings new, collector’s-centric Small Batch series, produced using a one-step lacquer process for highest reproduction quality. The first effort, John Coltrane’s Lush Life (1961) sold out in just a couple of hours, and that’s also been the case with the just-released second, Yusuf Lateef’s Eastern Sounds (1962).

Now, Coltrane is one of those jazz giants recognized by one-name-only (e.g. “Bird,” “Dizzy,” “Miles,” or “Monk”) that even non-aficionados have at least heard of. And he’s widely credited with bringing world music of the East to the jazz.

But as Eastern Sounds proves, Coltrane (who died in 1967 at the age of 40) wasn’t the only sonic importer by far. Music journalist and author of Ashley Kahn, who wrote new liner notes for Eastern Sounds, gives Lateef just as much credit with something he calls it the “import-export pulse.”

“It touches on Yusef’s philosophies on life, spirituality, and music. The creative use of all musical influences with the door open to whatever works. And that’s a tough place to be, because [jazz] is not codified or valued the way that classical music is or even pop,” he offers. “Jazz has a porousness, a high standard of being able to take apart car engines in a garage. And it doesn’t matter if it’s an import or a domestic.”

The nine-track album consists mostly of Lateef’s original compositions, in addition to the Jimmy McHugh standard “Don’t Blame Me” and two soundtrack selections: “Love Theme from Spartacus” and “Love Theme from The Robe.” There are tracks that skew more traditional jazz and bop (“Purple Flower,” “Chinq Miau”), those with an Eastern flavor (“Blues for the Orient”) and the record’s “bookend” tracks that show the influence the most (“The Plum,” “The Three Faces of Balal”).

click to enlarge Jazz journalist and author Ashley Kahn. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY KAHN
Jazz journalist and author Ashley Kahn.
Photo by Ashley Kahn
“Those two tunes sort of sync up the album as a sequence of experiences, and not just a repetition of something they did nightly on the bandstand. It begins in the East and ends in the East, and that’s a helluva statement,” Kahn says.

“Yusef was very clearheaded about how he made his statements, and it was a very conscious decision, mixing the Middle Eastern with Chinese music. All housed in a modern jazz album. It was a strong statement in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s musically.”

The lineup includes Lateef on tenor saxophone, oboe, flute, and a Chinese xun (an ancient globular flute), pianist Barry Harris, drummer Lex Humphries, and bassist Ernie Farrow, who also performs the rubab—an Afghani lute-like instrument. “Yusef [and his band] were not just playing those instruments for texture,” Kahn offers. “It wasn’t just spices thrown into a dish. It was the main course.”

Born in 1920 as William Huddleston before converting to Islam and changing his name in the early 1950s, Yusef Lateef (1920-2013) was a restless musical explorer, and though saxophone and flute were his primary instruments, he played a wide variety of others, of Western, Eastern, and African origins. He first started exploring and recording what is now called “world music” as early as 1957, and later incorporated soul, gospel, and funk into his sound.

The Grammy award-winning Lateef was also an author, earned a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music, and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, teaching a both institutions. In 2010, nearing his 90th birthday, he received a Jazz Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He died in 2013 at the age of 93.

Yusef Lateef release more than 70 albums in his long career, but Kahn says that Eastern Sounds still stands out, even as he admits the title itself is something of an oversell.

“He’s also looking west to Hollywood with the soundtrack melodies, and South with more Latin tunes. So the title doesn’t fully encompass the many directions he was looking at. But what he was saying is that we’re not relying just on what we hear in the West.”

Kahn says Lateef always saw music as a “connective force” to bridge people and cultures, something he learned form countless hours pouring over recordings and sheet music and books at the public library in his native Detroit before heading out to seek his fortunes in New York.

Craft Recordings is already planning further releases in the Small Batch series, with a hope that the music reaches not only jazz fanatics who may already have the records in multiple versions and have heard the discs scores of times before, but new ears. And Kahn hopes that the connection between the music and its makers is appreciated just as much for its sociology as its sonics.

“Jazz is really just one branch on a tree of popular music, but it reflects the African-American experience more so than anything else, and that’s the way that white America relates to it: full of the promise and also the issues. It’s all in there,” Kahn sums up.

“But Yusef hated the ‘J’ word. He’d say is was a putdown of the cultural depth of the music, and almost saw it as racist. And that is was never given its due in the way that other musics have.”

For more on the life and music of Yusef Lateef, visit YusefLateef.com
For more on Craft Recordings, visit Craftrecordings.com/pages/small-batch
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero