Yusef Lateef: The Man With the Big Front Yard

Yusef Lateef
The Man With the Big Front Yard
32 Jazz

LATEEF, NOW IN his 78th year, was a Hoyt Wilhelm type--a late starter who lasted longer than most. Starting as a bopper and playing in the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at the turn of the 1950s, Lateef became one of jazz's more eclectic eccentrics. He helped to introduce Eastern modalities and weird-ass instruments--including the shannai (an Indian wind instrument) and the theremin--and he pioneered the use of the flute in jazz. Lateef would mix Detroit hard-bop (which livened up a Mingus LP or two) with a sort of faux world music that predated Martin Denny. In the 1980s, he was also one of the first to go New Age--leading to some of the most prevalent cutouts in used-CD history--although his recent work on his own label YAL has favored blowing sessions that often enter into free territory.

Lateef has had many careers, and he's processed a fair amount of cheese that ended up sounding visionary. Much of this can be credited to producer Joel Dorn, who enjoyed pushing his artists to the circuslike side of things. This production has proved portentous, as cheese tastes better and better to the '90s generation. Fortunately for us, these four LPs document, on the whole, Lateef's kitschier side, following his career through the Superfly '70s, an era he took as seriously as Curtis Mayfield. We might laugh at the wide-flared pants, but we still want to get with the women who wore them, and, in that context, this music is as sexy as "If You Want Me to Stay" and as heavy as Wattstax.

Of the four LPs, Complete is a superlative hard-bop date, with Lateef's usual touches of exotica (Eastern modalities, oboe, tambourine). Detroit is a blaxploitation masterpiece, hitting all the high notes of faux funk with top-notch soloing (a rarity for blaxploitation). The other two reflect Lateef's concurrent session work for Creed Taylor's CTI label, home of Deodata's 2001 theme. The arrangements are slicker (thank you, Fender Rhodes), although the musicianship is still excellent enough to lead to some surprises. But the biggest shock is the amount of ground that gets covered during the collection. These four CDs are a journey from a period when John Coltrane was worshipped to the current altar of recently crowned lounge king Lalo Schrifin. Always didactic (his albums, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk's, were often programmed to give us a minihistory of jazz), Lateef unintentionally paved a path that ran a spiraling course from down-home soul to urban irony.

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