An elder of African-American culture, a master improviser, a heroic performer, recording artist and educator, a genius who denounces the term “jazz” (but is an NEA Jazz Master) and reviles all the “vulgarity” which has traditionally been associated with the music but has never abjured blues, grit and funk — multi-reeds specialist Yusef Lateef at age 92 earned the reverent attention of a full house at Roulette in Brooklyn on April 6.
Performing a set of more than an hour’s length with only percussionist Adam Rudolph and a bit of pre-recorded material to support him, Lateef sang, recited poetry, played oboe, flute, small wind instruments and tenor saxophone with a directness and wisdom that has no match today. Looking serene and elegant, he engaged in free-form sound painting in which each phrase, intonation, squawk and whisper of overtones seemed to be meaningful. Dr. Lateef (he received an Ed.D. in Education from University of Massachusetts/Amherst in 1975, his dissertation on Western and Islamic education and earned a Ed.D. in Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1975, and taught there) remained seated throughout his appearance, and does not have the hearty tone and fullness of breath of a younger man but the honesty of his music was unwavering. He sounded by turns solemn, rude, plaintive and gruff; his poetry spoke of the dominion of Providence; his message was to love live, to avoid moments that are without love and to hold off despair. The most affecting episode of this concert, which was uninterrupted until by a standing ovation before the duet’s encore, was Lateef’s vocal call to “cross the river.” He sees the other side and is, evidently, unafraid.
What better perspective can a man of his age gain? He must be — and should be — proud of his accomplishments, as he has expressed himself fully, expanded upon the potentials of his heritage and brought musical pleasure to many people, worldwide. Although trumpeter Don Cherry is often called the first “world musician” (meaning he absorbed melodies from everywhere, and responded to the fundamentals of music so as to collaborate with anyone, anywhere), Lateef was introducing reeds instruments from foreign lands to audiences of Cannonball Adderley’s sextet in the late 1950s, when Cherry was still emerging from Los Angeles (in company with that other musical universalist, Ornette Coleman). Yusef Lateef embraced Middle Eastern and Eastern musical ideas, incorporated bells and recording studio collage in his practice, has written novellas and essays as well as reflective, imagistic poems, has brought spirituals like “Wade in the Water” (made famous by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1901) into jazz repertoire. His breadth was demonstrated by the concert’s first half, in which his compositions for string quartet (no. 2, from 2012 — a world premiere), saxophone trio (“Elan Vital” dating from 1998, a New York premiere) and piano (“Autophysiophysic variations,” also from 2012, also a world premiere) received scrupulous performances by the Momenta Quartet; soprano saxist J.D. Parran, altoist Marty Ehrlich and baritonist Alan Won, and Taka Kigawa, respectively.
Devoted as their interpretations were, no one was more attuned to the Master than Adam Rudolph, who has been his duet partner for 25 years (they have also recorded several albums, including In the Garden with Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra, and Towards the Unknown). On congas, an array of hanging cymbals, a Gnawan guembri and a fat, resonant clay jug, Rudolph accompanied, echoed and sometimes anticipated Lateef with remarkable empathy. He listened raptly, responded imaginatively, never overshadowed the 0lder man. Their interactions were intimate and exemplary.
If Lateef could not or perhaps didn’t want to reel off volcanic eruptions of sound, as he has in the past, he still created some stunning phrases, their impact emphasized by the silence they marked as a broad brushstroke defines a bare canvass. As a seer, Lateef was in no rush,was not constrained to blow loudly, and offered no upbeat panacea to the 600 some attendees, who had come for what they got: the truth distilled by a man who has spent his long life exploring, studying, experimenting with and shaping sound, mostly as a product of exhalation. To breathe music, from the guts and heart, strikes me as a wondrous thing. Praise and peace to Yusef Lateef, who calls his music “autophysiopsychic,” with the directive that “it should be the goal of every musician to combine their theoretical knowledge with their life experience, and to offer to and accept knowledge from their personal source of strength, inspiration and knowledge.” Amen.