It has been my pleasure to have a musical and personal association with Yusef Lateef for the past 25 years. During that time I have never ceased to be amazed at the wellspring of innovative compositional processes and music he continues to generate, and how he continues to manifest qualities of open-mindedness, courage, self-reflection and the perpetual desire to grow. At the age of 90, Yusef continues to inspire so many of us.
The Centaur and the Phoenix (Riverside, 1960)
I start here because this record, which I borrowed at the age of 13 from my father’s LP collection, was the first of Yusef’s that I heard. It shows that Yusef’s ongoing interest in expanding the orchestration of so-called “jazz” extends as far back as 1960. (I am writing “jazz” in quotes because, for the past 40 years, Yusef has made a point of notcalling his music jazz. He calls his music “autophysiopsychic,” which means music coming from one’s physical, mental and spiritual self.) The instrumentation on the recording was unusual for the time: The nonet included bassoon, oboe, two trumpets (one of which was Clark Terry) and a very young Joe Zawinul. In “Apathy,” one can hear that this is the period where Yusef, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy were spending time together to share ideas inspired by Schillinger and other 20th-century European composers and theorists.
Jazz Mood (Savoy, 1957)
“Morning” has become, perhaps more than any other of Yusef’s compositions, a standard. It has undoubtedly been performed hundreds of times and recorded by many artists. Yusef’s use of argul, along with Ernie Farrow playing the rebab, makes this one of the earliest recordings of what is now called world music. Yusef told me that he had already been using nonwestern instruments (as well as playing in odd meters) for several years by the time he made this record.
“Warm Hearted Blues”
A flat, G flat and C (Impulse!, 1966)
It is known that Yusef is one of the great voices on the tenor saxophone, especially when it comes to playing the blues. There are so very many wonderful recordings of Yusef playing the blues, it’s tough to pick just one. Here is a beautiful example that I especially enjoy.
Into Something (New Jazz, 1961)
And then, of course, there is Yusef playing the blues on oboe. This is deep soul music. It is an example of what the Dogon people of Mali call “mi,” which means the inner spirit of the person expressed through the voice of the instrument.
“A Long Time Ago”
The Diverse Yusef Lateef (Atlantic, 1970)
This has to be one of the great “ancient-to-future” pieces of music from that period. It is elegantly abstract, multidirectional and grooving all at once. The voices of the Sweet Inspirations bring in a church feeling.
Yusef Lateef in Nigeria (YAL, 1983)
This recording, made in Nigeria during the four years Yusef lived, taught and studied there, is, to me, one of the most natural, deep and successful collaborations between African and African-American musicians ever recorded.
“First Movement: Larghissimo”
Little Symphony (Atlantic, 1987)
This is the first recording Yusef made upon his return from living in Africa. The music is a significant departure from his earlier directions, and points the way to his body of work of the last 25 years. Yusef dispenses with song form and standard instrumentation. On this amazing solo recording, in addition to his woodwinds, he overdubs electronics and a variety of African instruments. When this record won the first Grammy ever given in the New Age category, Yusef called and asked me, “What isNew Age music, anyway!?”
“Formative Impulses-Part 3-Seed”
In the Garden (Meta/YAL, 1993)
This is a duet between Yusef and myself (on handrumset) that is a beautiful example of what Yusef calls a “Dakpa”: Our concept of approaching musical dialogue. We have been developing this for many years now.
The African-American Epic Suite (ACT, 1996)
Although Yusef had been composing for orchestral ensembles for several years, this piece, commissioned and performed by the Cologne Radio Orchestra, is his first fully realized piece for symphony orchestra. There are five improvising soloists interacting with the orchestra, including some extraordinary playing by Yusef himself.
Live in Seattle (YAL, 1999)
This piece is one of Yusef’s magic meditative flute solos. I have often observed it bring an audience to tears. This is a live recording of a duet concert we did, and in his spirit of experimentation, Yusef later added samples of my percussion and his own keyboard playing to the mix, in a way that expanded the expressive dimensions of the music. Yusef once said to me that he has always tried to do something new, something that he has never done before, on each recording he makes.