Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Yusef LATEEF - The Gentle Giant 1972
From his emergence in the 1950s, the multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef has been a kindhearted warrior on the cutting edge of jazz. With his ahead-of-its-time inclusive attitude towards music in general, he was able to absorb multicultural influences long before it became fashionable. GENTLE GIANT, originally issued on the Atlantic label in 1972, is one of Lateef's more funk-oriented efforts. With plenty of lyrical soloing and deep grooves (and the remarkable Kenny Barron on piano!), GIANT is one of the cornerstone discs of crossover jazz.
So, it was 1972 and a lot of jazz musicians who had made their names in the 50's and 60's found the 70's difficult to adjust to. Most record companies wanted to make older jazz names "relevant" to a young record buying market firmly rooted in rock. This formula was disastrous for many but a few could ride the crest of this corporate minded wave and survive. In a couple of rare instances the artist could even continue to expand the trajectories they were already forging with only a minimum of disruption to their identity. Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef are two of the few who adapted well to this corporate mindset (not that they were corporate minded), which saw that mostly white rock 'n roll buying public as a vast untapped reserve.
Well, Lateef, like Kirk, was already stretching out into territory other jazz musicians of their generation kept safely away from and considering Lateef was already embracing Eastern instruments as early as the mid 1950's, it's not at all surprising to hear a smooth rock and roll rhythm section backing him on the very nice, groovy album opener, "Nubian Lady". The drums in particular are certainly more rooted in rock than jazz along with the electric bass and piano but Yusef's flute melody is firmly tied to his persona anyway and the song itself, sans the more rock friendly rhythm section, could easily have fit on "Eastern Sounds" from 1961. And man, there's a lot of flute on this album--standard flute, bamboo flute and pneumatic flute. Next up, "Lowland Lullabye", is just cello and flute (again). Surprisingly this very pleasant little piece, which brings to mind the sun rising over an African savannah, does not feature Lateef at all. The simple but pretty flute is played by the drummer Kuumba 'Tootie' Heath.
The cover of The Beatles "Hey Jude" is the only major misstep on the album and its flow. The first half of this nine minute ten second song is almost inaudible. This was apparently done intentionally. As it states in the liner notes, "Do not adjust the playback level on your audio equipment--Readjust your mind". The volume grows at a glacially slow pace, and early 70's hippie, "groovy concept" bullshit aside, it really obliterates a great portion of an otherwise fantastic cover of this song. Nice playing all around, with Lateef on oboe, mostly lost to the ether due to lack of volume until it just STOPS mid performance. Hmmmm.
The hip electric piano vibe is back, as is Lateef's flute, on "Jungle Plum", where Lateef adds a Kirk-ish rhythmic scat talkin'/playin' technique. The flutes are out again for the next song, "The Poor Fishermen", both Yusef and and Tootie Heath playing a very lovely, slightly sombre Lateef original, which, as the song implies, brings to the mind's eye poor fishermen setting out for a long days work on a sunrise dappled ocean. "African Song" and "Queen Of The Night" (one of the best grooves on the album) both have a bit of electric backing with the keyboards and bass and AGAIN that damn flute! By this point one kinda thinks the term "Gentle Giant" arises from his instrument of choice on this record.
That's the main negative, as Yusef is a superb saxophonist, not to mention one of the few big name jazz musicians to who can kick ass on the oboe (just imagine getting your ass kicked by an oboe wielding Yusef!). By limiting his wide pallet of horns, he does narrow the sound of the album, which leans towards the gauze shirted, bean bag side of mellow. The last track, "Below Yellow Bell", is a standout. Yusef does that part talking, part humming, part blowing into the mouthpiece of a horn, or maybe the pneumatic flute, to create a trippy, weird little piece. Punctuated by the odd electric keyboard stab, bells and bongos, this is the direction more of this album should have taken. But I'm sure some Atlantic records bigwig made it clear, "Yusef, baby, LOVE the flute! Yeah, my girlfriend finds the flute sexy, know what I mean? It's IN, the kids love it--Your gonna be the flute guru. Posters of ya' on kids walls baby! YEAH!!
Oh yeah, it states in the liner notes that Yusef also plays tenor sax on this album. You can hear some oboe, like I said earlier, on the audible parts of "Hey Jude" but the tenor sax is MIA. But you know, don't adjust the flutes, Readjust your MIND...
Yusef Lateef’s Atlantic recordings on a whole are much more erratic than his earlier Riverside and Impulse dates. This album has its moments of interest. There is less straightahead swinging than had been heard previously and, along with some exotic pieces, much of this music falls into the R&B field. Lateef, heard on flutes, oboe and tenor, contributes some strong solos but was a nine-minute version of “Hey Jude” really necessary?
By Scott Yanow, All Music Guide.
Yusef Lateef- Oboe, Piano, Tenor Sax , Bamboo Flute, Flute, Guitar;
Kuumba "Tootie" Heath (flute, drums);
Kermit Moore- Cello;
Neal Boyer- Vibraphone, Chimes;
Ray Bryant, Kenneth Barron- Piano, Electric Piano);
Eric Gale- Guitar;
Sam Jones, Chuck Rainey, Bob Cunningham- Bass;
Bill Salter- Electric Bass;
Jimmy Johnson- Drums;
Ladzi Cammara- African Percussion;
The Sweet Inspirations- Background Vocals.
A1. Nubian Lady (6:38)
A2. Lowland Lullabye (2:12)
A3. Hey Jude (9:10)
B1. Jungle Plum (4:57)
B2. The Poor Fisherman (3:39)
B3. African Song (4:49)
B4. Queen Of The Night (2:12)
B5. Below Yellow Bell (5:02)