Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Thursday, 30 June 2011


Ever since I found Eastern Sounds in a charity shop in Hammersmith I've been fascinated by Yusef Lateef - the man and his music.
He seems to me to have been unfairly relegated to a footnote in jazz history. He is mentioned as a friend of Coltrane's who made available to him books about Islam. If he is mentioned it is usually in the context of some of the exotic instruments he used such as the rahab, shanai, koto, Chinese wooden flutes as well as the oboe and the flute. Sometime he is referred to as a precursor of 'world music' - whatever that may mean. The depth and beauty of his music, however, is rarely mentioned.
Jazz musicians have always attempted to expand the range of the music through the use of different instruments, different combination of instruments and different ways of playing.
Lateef's interest in 'exotic' instruments should be seen against the background of the introduction into jazz of a range of unlikely instruments from the harp to the cello to the bagpipes. Before sounds could be generated by a computer they had to be made by people and jazz musicians were always looking for new sounds. The long shadow cast by bebop encouraged younger musicians to experiment with form as well as content. Nothing was off limits, everything could be co-opted from Broadway musicals, to classical music and even in the case of Sonny Rollins, calypso.
However, Lateef carried these experiments furthest, at least until the seventies. From the early fifties when he started to lead his own groups almost every record he made has at least one track on which he plays oboe, flute or another instrument from beyond the United States.
To this love of different sounds Lateef added a love of the blues. Unlike Eric Dolphy who sometime seemed to be dismantling the post bop/ hard bop sound, Lateef used his ability as a multi-instrumentalist to give the blues based form of jazz a dose of energy, to revitalise it and to make it relevant.
Lateef puts it best himself: "Having completed two albums for Savoy, it dawned on me that perhaps I could be recording for few years, and it was no use reinventing the wheel with each new album. To break the mould, I began to study other instruments from different cultures. This new pursuit meant I had to spend time in the public library doing the research on Africa, India, Japan and China."
But the use of other instrument was not just a gimmick. As well as introducing new musical sounds Lateef hoped that the use of instruments from other countries could help to promote understanding and possibly friendship. He felt that other cultures had much to teach the US and that interaction could be beneficial to all involved.
I am certain that his interest in different musical instruments and in religion, leading to his conversion to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, are linked. Indeed later in his life Lateef would travel to Nigeria to teach music but also to study Nigerian music. Lateef also became an educator and developed his theory of Autophysiopsychic music. Clearly he is a man who with a deeply searching and enquiring mind.
Lateef fully converted to Islam in 1948, after a few years of intense study. In his biography he recalls: "My embrace of Islam came in about 1946 while I was working with the Wally Hayes Band in a club on the west side of Chicago. One night a trumpet player named Talib Dawud sat-in with us. He told me that he was an itinerant musician and that he was practicing Islam as a member of the Ahmadiyya Movement."
I think that it is significant for Lateef's music that he chose the Ahmadiyya Movement rather than the, albeit still nascent Nation of Islam. The motto of the movement is 'Love for All: Hatred for None' and, although it has been rejected by heretical, particularly in Pakistan, it is far closer to the mainstream of Islam that the Nation of Islam.
Although  one could infer that the adoption of Islam by Lateef, changing not only his name but the names of his wife and children, was an implicit rejection of elements of post-war American culture, Lateef does not seem to have been militantly calling for mass change. As he puts it, "I believe that the motivation for any human being to embrace Islam is that when almighty God turns a person's heart towards Islam (peace) there is no other choice for the person." This does not sound to me like the words of a many set on violent change - or indeed violence of any sort!
In a passage of Dizzy Gillespie's autobiography that is often quoted, Gillespie attributes the attraction of Islam to black Americans to the fact that they would treated with respect and as equals, something that could not easily be found in American institutions of the 1950s. Gillespie goes on to recount a story of one of his band members persuading a racist restaurateur to serve him by saying that he was not a Negro but a Muslim.
For Lateef, and indeed other jazz musicians such as Art Blakey, Dakota Stanton, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner and Shihab Sihab, conversion was a matter of deep faith not expedience
The record opens with Dizzy Gillespie's A Night In Tunisia.
The track begins with a gong and Lateef playing eastern sounding notes while in the background there are strange percussive sounds. Altogether a very evocative beginning , perhaps derived from Lateef's studies of North African musics or from folk records from the region.
The song soon, however, returns to the US and follows the well trod path of other covers of this standard. In 1957 when this record was made, Lateef
Lateef had played in Gillespie's band and must have been very familiar with Night In Tunisia. Written in 1942 and first recorded in 1944 the title refers to the Allied involvement in Tunisia rather than attempting to evoke a mythical exotic paradise.
I particularly like the very end where Lateef and trumpeter Wilbur Harden quote Charlie Parker's famous version. Harden would record four albums as leader with John Coltrane - yet another Coltrane connection!
Endura, written by Lateef is a very straightforward post bop number with fine solos from Lateef on tenor and Harden on flugelhorn. It swings in a funky manner but after Night In Tunisia is seems rather flat to my ears.

Side Two opens, like Side One, with a gong. Bassist Ali Jackson, who would also play with Coltrane as well as on other dates with Lateef, provides the wonderful Prayer to the East. Lateef's flute soars majestically above the tight rhythm section. Although the use of the flute seems to be an attempt to invoke a sense of prayer or reverence, Harden's flugelhorn is just too loud and tough to hold the same mood.
I find the next track fascinating. Why Lateef chose to cover exotica maestro Les Baxter's Love Dance, perhaps we will never know. He must have owned, or at least have had access to a copy of Baxter's Le Sacre Du Savage.
Exotica has become renowned for its fakeness, its lack of authenticity and its use of foreign instruments, usually from the Pacific, to spice up some otherwise pedestrian music. Les Baxter, however, was the one who started it all and his music is never pedestrian.  The Ritual of the Savage LP contains Quiet Village which when covered by Martin Denny on his Exotica LP became a smash hit.
I think its worth quoting the description of this track on the Ritual of the Savage sleeve notes.
"The fervid sun has dropped behind the jungle curtain ... living creatures of the tropics make their nests. A chattering chimp squawls a final command to its young. Over the softening sounds of evening comes the beat of the tom-tom... bringing together the entire native populace for a ritual as stimulating as it is sacred. Here is music for a slow, surging and erotic dance ... a dance as seductive and pulsating in its concept as in its execution ... gentle in tempo ... violent in extreme." Heady stuff!!!! And I still don't understand why Lateef would have covered it.
If anything it threatens to give credence to accusations that he is just using foreign instruments in the same manner of people like Denny or Arthur Lyman - as pure exotica, employed only to evoke a feeling of a dangerous, sexually freer primitive place.
Did Lateef, still a young man of 36 really believe in the savage and primitive nature of Africa?
The sleeve states that Love Dance was arranged by Ali Mohammed Jackson, no doubt the same Ali Jackson who wrote Prayer to the East. From the name one can infer that he is a Muslim too.

The set concludes with the lovely ballad Lover Man which shows the depth of Lateef's playing to the full.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


As my journey to the outer reaches of my record collection continues I pulled this out recently. I haven't listened to it much over the years but have now  become strangely obsessed by it over the last few weeks.
It doesn't quite fit into any neat categories and is all the better for that. Its not really hard bop - its far too experimental, Its not free - although its recorded in 1961 and includes Eric Dolphy, the presence of Booker Ervin ensures that hard bop is very much a presence. Its not third stream - although the inclusion of the cello might make you think there were some classical pretensions.
For once the title does seem to convey what is happening on the record. Waldron seems to be on a quest - but a quest for what?
The Quest was recorded for Prestige in 1961. The Prestige label had a reputation as something of a junkie's label. Its owner Bob Weinstock often paid musicians in cash which made it very attractive to those who needed quick money. What's more, Weinstock didn't like anyone rehearsing in the studio and was against second takes, unless absolutely necessary. If the band needed to record the song again he'd get the engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, to wipe the tape so they could record over it. This kind of hit and run approach was, he said, intended to capture the spontaneity of live performances. Perhaps, but it also meant that many musicians felt that they didn't need to play their best. It also meant that musicians were loath to try new things, or sometimes even new compositions, unless they could get it right first time.
At the time of this recording Waldron was in the grip of heroin addiction. It wasn't until an overdose in 1963 that he was able to quit. Apparently, a result of the overdose was that he temporarily forgot how to play the piano. It would be another three years before his memory was restored,
However this isn't a drug record. Dolphy was famously straight and I don't think that Ervin was part of that scene either. Its a very experimental record, regardless of the Prestige habit of capturing first takes, Waldron clearly wanted to stretch out and explore new areas. There are no standards and all the tracks are Waldron compositions. However, one has to wonder if, given more time in the studio, more rehearsals or more encouragement to stretch out, Waldon might have got to closer to the goal of his quest.
Waldron, Dolphy and Ervin all played with Mingus although never at the same time.
This record has been released under Eric Dolphy's name and given the prominence he has on it I can see why you might think that he was the leader. Waldron's piano seems to be very low in the mix and, even on his few solos, he is not very demonstrative in his playing. His music, and his playing, seems to conjure up images and pictures of real places and things rather than impressions of feelings and emotions.
Waldron is joined by Ron Carter on cello, Joe Benjamin on bass and Charles Persip on drums. Benjamin and Persip are an adequate rhythm section and they anchor each track perfectly well, if at times somewhat unimaginatively. Ron Carter's cello on the other hand is a very adventurous addition. Not only is it a very unusual instrument to find on a jazz record, Carter's playing is not at all conventional and in some cases is a front line instrument in its own right.
The record starts with Status Seeking which, as Waldron in the linear notes point out reflects "the hustle and bust of the way we live. Everybody's trying to make it, and I try to show here the two main ways in which that struggle is carried on - some guys are pushing just to get there first and to make it in a materialistic way. Other guys, John Coltrane for instance, are pushing to realize their fullest potential as musicians, and that's the kind of status I identify with." Its a fast busy track which a very cinematic quality. Waldron would go on to write film scores and music for dance.

The pace is slowed for the next track, Duquility. Waldron's piano and Carter's cello are the main instruments here. Waldron is a very interesting pianist, soft and gentle and engaging but at the same time angular and sharp. Ron Carter began his musical education playing cello before he started on the double bass. I must admit that on this particular number I find his playing rather grating.

For Thirteen, according to the linear note, Waldron was influenced by tone-row conceptions of contemporary classical composers. Carter's cello finds itself soloing in the front row as do Ervin, Dolphy and Waldron himself. Despite the classical influences Thirteen comes over as hard bop rather than third way.

Side one closes with We Diddit. Persip gets a chance to let rip on a fierce drum solo while Dolphy provides some typically interesting alto work and Ervin underpins with his tenor. Its another fast and busy track and I keep feeling that its about to bust out of its bop roots and head off into uncharted territory but however inventive it is, it just can't quite break free.

 Side 2 opens with, in my view, the outstanding track from this record. Warm Canto features Dolphy on achingly beautiful clarinet, with Waldron providing calm, blocking playing behind him. Benjamin provides a lovely plucked bass solo.As Waldron says in the linear notes "It's an odd mode (the PhrygianWaldron's discordant, restrained ending.

Warp and Woof is underpinned by solid playing from the rhythm section allowing everyone else to solo over the top. Ervin is good if not very adventurous, Carter tries to push his cello to swing, which it struggles to do, Dolphy is. as always, very interesting, and Waldron remains calm and measured.

 Finally the record concludes with Fire Waltz and some of Waldron's best playing. I think his solo on this track is wonderfully flowing and imaginative. I'm less convinced by Benjamin's plucked bass solo unfortunately. However, its a marvelous piece of music.

And just for fun here is Dolphy playing it live. He takes it, typically, much further into the free territory that is only hinted at on the record. Underpinned by the same 3/4 waltz time, Dolphy uses it as a basis to be very exploratory and adventurous. Perhaps this is the direction that Waldon might have taken the music if he had recorded in different conditions?

Monday, 6 June 2011


In the pre-Internet age it was sometimes impossible to find out anything about a band.
When I was a teenager the only source of information on most bands was the NME. If you couldn't read about a band in the music press then there was no hope of finding out anything. No glossy monthly magazines, no newspaper coverage of pop music, no websites or itunes and of course with the likes of DLT and Kid Jensen ruling the Radio 1 airwaves you could be sure that you would only hear the charts. On reflection it's a small miracle that anyone knew anything about anything!
I simply cannot remember why I bought this record. I can remember the tiny record shop I bought it in. I can remember who I was with and what they bought. But why did I pick this record and not any others?
So let's pretend that we are in a world with no Wikipedia. How do you find out information about the bands you love? Well one way was to look at the sleeve. Really, really look at it. After all that was all you had. Unfortunately this sleeve doesn't give much away. The inner sleeve declares 'Songs About Love and Death'. The band mysteriously use initials instead of first names, although there are some band photos so I knew that one of the band was female.
Don't forget that A Dark Enchantment came out in 1987. I'd grown up with record sleeves that were so well designed that it sometime didn't matter what the record was like. Think Peter Saville and Factory, think The Smiths on Rough Trade, or 4AD.
So I get home and put the needle on the record.
This is a record with so many ideas that it can never settle on one thing.  It wants to be a happy sparkly kind of record but at the same time it wants to be a dark brooding angry record.
The inescapable comparison, which I thought the very first time I listened to it, is with New Order. But that is a good thing not a bad thing. Listen to Love Lies Bleeding and you'll hear a band that deserved to play for clubs full of spannered ravers.
Love Lies Bleeding is them at their happy dancefloor friendly best.
 And then they follow it up with something like Sneakyville, apparently inspired by the Manson killings and sounding something like Depeche Mode all deep voices and brooding synth lines.

The whole record is somewhat off-kilter. It flirts with so many styles, masters some and fails to get others right. The lyrics are, for the most part impenetrable. I can never seem to get on top of the music, or perhaps I mean under the skin of it. Just when I think I have Secession down, they slip out of my grasp and lead me on to somewhere else. For every moment of beauty on Ocean Blue there is the terrible sax solo on Radioland. For the wonderful synth sounds in The Magician there is the terrible guitar in the same song.

I loved that unknowable element to them. All I had was the music and even the music couldn't be pinned down.

I love the internet but sometime I feel that we have lost something too.

Of course now I can find out as much as the band as I want.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say. Does having the story of the band add to the music? Not for me, as I loved the music already even when the creators were faceless.
In a way it was this way of thinking that prepared me for my love affair with house music when I first heard it in 1988 - only a year after buying this record. It was the 'purity' of the music, untrammelled by images or human faces that I loved. Finding and falling for this record prepared me for that.

I've never met anyone else with this record and although I have now discovered that it only had a very small pressing, I like to think that there is a select band of lucky people who took a chance on something unknown and were rewarded.