Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:5 July 2024 


Given that jazz performance is about taking a theme or a melody and exploring it in a spontaneous fashion, it is scarcely surprising that jazz musicians have shown an enduring interest in challenging themselves with harmonies and rhythms outside of the usual jazz tropes. The new, the unusual, the pushing of boundaries, and the deep desire to create something unique; makes the music both familiar and constantly different. All this is found on the classic Yusef Lateef album Eastern Sounds.

Recorded in New York by Rudy Van Gelder in early September 1961 and released on the Moodsville label—known for its preference for laid back jazz—this is a record full whose variety and nuance will reward relative newcomers to the style while offering plenty to delight hardened jazz aficionados. The variety arises from Lateef’s well established skills on a variety of instruments; here primarily tenor sax, oboe and flute. And an old clay pot.

The eastern influence is fully present in the opening piece "The Plum Blossom" which features an ancient Chinese instrument described by Lateef as "about the size and shape of a grapefruit, with a hole on top and five holes scattered promiscuously on the surface." It is an introverted, somewhat mystical opening, breathy notes brightened by the wonderfully deft contributions of pianist Barry Harris. 

Eastern Sounds takes flight on the second number, "Blues For The Orient." The oboe is not generally considered a blues/jazz instrument, yet here it sounds totally at home exploring a lovely minor key melody. It may sound like a cliche, but you almost expect to see a serpent weaving up from your kettle as the Indian theme sways into double and half-time passages over a rhythm section who are clearly hypnotised and floating on air. Harris is once again in superb form on his solo, taking Lateef’s melodic ideas and spinning them this way and that, but always swinging.

Perhaps keeping in mind the brief of accessibility and recognition that was the intent of the Moodsville label, Yusef Lateef included two popular film themes on the LP. Particularly lovely is the romantic treatment of the "Love Theme From Spartacus", though the "Love Theme From The Robe"—featuring Lateef on flute—is beautifully performed too. 

Elsewhere, Lateef picks up his tenor for the 5/4 time "Chinq Miau" and the hard bop "Snafu", the latter the most driving piece in a set dominated by atmosphere and quiet exploration. "Purple Flower" also has the leader on tenor for a classic slow ballad with touches of oriental spice. It is delightful to again hear the restrained interplay between saxophone and piano; the piece is an under-stated highlight of a fine album. Eastern Sounds ends with "The Three Faces of Balal" which—like opening track "The Plum Blossom"—has bass player Ernie Farrow swapping his double bass for the Indian rabat, adding a percussive underpinning to the piece. As the plucked rhythmic rhythm fades away, you will be struck by what an intriguing and pleasant journey you have taken with Lateef and his band. And if, perchance, you were listening to the excellent 2023 vinyl re-issue on Concord, made from lacquers cut by the legendary Kevin Gray, you may well decide to flip it back over to the beginning and experience more of Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds.

© Bruce Jenkins—July 2024

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