Yusef Lateef: The Gentle Giant


Truth and serenity seem to ooze from Yusef Lateef's deep, mellifluous voice, even over a creaky phone line stretched halfway across the continent. So you have to take his word for it that what he's been playing for the last 70 years or so is autophysiopsychic music.

A genuine renaissance man—multi-instrumentalist, pioneer in cross-cultural explorations, composer, arranger, scholar, writer, educator, philosopher—Lateef has trouble with the term usually associated with his field of expertise and soaring accomplishment: jazz.

"Jazz is defined as doggerel, skullduggery, poppycock, coquetry, sexual intercourse," he said recently from his home in Massachusetts. "It has nothing to do with what I do."

So, long ago he came up with a multi-syllabic name that explains a lot about an iconic artist who, at age 88, continues to find new sources of inspiration in nature and disparate cultures, to translate complex musical theories and deeply held beliefs into transcendental sounds.

"After I graduated from the Manhattan School of Music I was asked to teach a course in the theory department and I had to name the course, so I called it autophysiopsychic music. It comes from a state of introspection. It means music from the physical, mental, and spiritual self."

Whatever it's called, Lateef's music has been on the cutting edge for decades, moving out of the blues and swing through bop and into an arena cross-stitched with global sounds, African American roots, and eclectic experimentation beyond categorization. And when the Gentle Giant (as his recent autobiography was titled) comes to the Walker for what he says will be his first performance ever in the Twin Cities, he'll be joined by three other remarkable innovators: Minneapolis resident Douglas Ewart, whose multiple musical endeavors rival Lateef's; longtime Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell; and percussionist Adam Rudolph, a leader of numerous ensembles who has also been Lateef's primary collaborator for two decades.

The idea for what should be an extraordinary summit originated in long-simmering discussions between Rudolph and Ewart, who have known one another since the early 1970s. The connection then was Chicago's renowned Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), where Ewart was studying after arriving from his native Jamaica, while Rudolph was a teenaged percussionist with tenor saxophonist and AACM co-founder Fred Anderson. However, Lateef has never met Ewart or Mitchell.

"I hear they're comparable to what I do," Lateef said.

In fact, Rudolph said, there are many ties. "Douglas and I have worked together," he said, speaking from his home in New Jersey. "And Yusef's vision and aesthetic have had an impact on a lot of AACM musicians." Ewart and Mitchell also have a long association. So at the Walker, they'll play as a pair, as will Lateef and Rudolph; then all four will play together.

Their material "will be created at the time," Lateef said. But don't call it improvisation. "That's another term that's used improperly," he said. "When you look at the definition of improvisation, it is to do something without previous preparation. But your whole life is preparation."

Lateef's long lifetime of extraordinary preparation has included stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Babatunde Olatunji. His muscular-toned tenor became a hallmark of Dizzy's big band in the late '40s, when he also became one of the first jazz musicians to convert to Islam and adopt a Muslim name. By the early '50s he was leading his own band and breaking new ground by incorporating musical elements from the Middle East and Asia. "When I was at Savoy Records," he explained, "I realized if I wanted to keep recording I'd have to vary my presentation."

But what he makes sound like a prosaic need for a fresh gimmick was actually the initial stirrings of world music, and led to his landmark 1961 album Eastern Sounds as well as an unquenchable thirst for multicultural inspirations ranging from the Fulani people of Nigeria to avant-garde classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. At the same time, he was instrumental in expanding the use of flute and oboe in jazz, plus mastered a bevy of exotic woodwinds he picked up around the world. Recently, he completed a concerto for piano and his second symphony, which he said incorporates a new structural system called mutualism, with tonal colors derived from the way one note affects another.

Through it all, Lateef has been guided by a spiritual sense so deep he seems to be emitting an aura. Part of it is self-awareness, something he said he learned from Gillespie, and which he tries to give to his students and audiences. "I try to awaken what's already within the human being," he said. "I aim at it. I hope for it."

"It's about having curiosity and having a certain humility about learning new kinds of music," Rudolph said. "At 88, he's still like that, bringing that childlike joyfulness to inspiration. Every concert we do, we try to do something we've never done before. He says we're evolutionists." 

YUSEF LATEEF will perform with Adam Rudolph, Roscoe Mitchell, and Douglas Ewart on SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6, at the WALKER ART CENTER; 612.375.7600