The prophet Muhammad said: “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. Seek knowledge even though it be in China.”
Yusef Lateef stayed true to this dictum throughout a formidable and extraordinarily long career. Originally William Emanuel Huddleston, Lateef was one of the earliest jazz players to convert to Islam, taking his new name in the late 1940s. When The Wire’s Steve Holtje interviewed him in 1997, he was still spreading the faith like a new disciple and proudly quoted the words of wisdom above.
Lateef took sounds and instruments from the furthest corners of the world and forced them into the production line context of mid-1950s post bop. By the time John Coltrane started using non-Western scales on “India” and “Africa” at the turn of the 60s, Lateef was already 40 years old, and had been traveling the world through sound for years. Only Sun Ra could match Lateef’s sonic spectrum. Ra was a charismatic dictator who initiated disciples into a cult based around his music; Lateef, in contrast, was a self-contained nomad whose calm manner charmed engineers into working with his strange instruments.
His records for hard-nosed labels such as Prestige and Savoy channelled frequencies unheard in that era: blasted reed drones from the arghul; the unearthly keening fiddle of the rebab; DIY noises from Western detritus such as 7-Up bottles and balloons. The introductions of tracks such as “Before Dawn” and “Night In Tunisia” are typical – they present a minute or so of raw, wild sonics before dropping back into a more familiar swinging mode.
Jazz ’Round The World, recorded for Impulse! in 1964, showcases its wide palette of sounds on the album cover – Lateef is pictured next to an array of reed instruments, from bassoon to oboe to saxophone. The music inside takes the exoticist subtext of Prayer To The East (1957) and Eastern Sounds (1961) and spins a whole album around the concept of far-flung nations. The result is somewhere between ambitious travelogue and whimsical fantasy, with a few moments of kitsch to sugar the pill.
“India” is the deepest piece. The introduction has neither metre or key, just a wandering shenai – a reed instrument from the subcontinent. The piece drops into a slow lament, with Alice Coltrane's half brother, bassist Ernie Farrow, sounding a tolling vibration on his low string. Lateef sustains notes on the shenai for as long as possible, to see how the sounds might evolve. The piece uses none of the structures or scales of Indian music, but by meeting its instruments on their own terms, it forges a strong sense of empathy.
“Raisins And Almonds” is an equally intense meditation on an old Yiddish ballad. “The Volga Rhythm Song” doesn’t sound particularly Russian, but its whip-crash percussion and dueling horns summon an appropriate folkish nostalgia. The album reaches “Utopia” towards its end, a minor key ballad that riffs off “Summertime” at the start. As Lateef on flute and Richard Williams on trumpet exchange slow phrases, it feels as if they are carrying the world on their shoulders. If this is utopia, it consists of hard-won enlightenment rather than undivided happiness.
As a young man, Lateef decided that everyone in the world was his brother. “It preached the unity of mankind, and brotherhood,” Lateef said to Holtje about the Ahmadiyya beliefs he adopted in his twenties. “That was the way I had felt about humanity for years.” Lateef’s interest in overseas music is as much an act of optimism, faith and imagination as a practical interest in how they really work. It’s perhaps why his work has a tendency towards vague generalisation – the general theme of the East comes up in his work more frequently than specific references to, say, Japan, or China, or Indonesia.
He sees shared roots in all musics, whether they are there or not. “The blues has lasted so long because it’s put together with so lasting a substance – basic feelings,” he says in the sleevenotes to his 1966 album A Flat, G Flat And C. “Its form is so plastic that it can encompass all sorts of feelings and all kinds of formal embellishments." So in Lateef’s work, blues and ballads become a stand-in for all kinds of melancholy exotic modes. “Blues For The Orient” on Eastern Sounds has Lateef playing oboe, deliberately restricting himself to a pentatonic scale to create the impression of an Oriental mode. He played blues and ballads so beautifully they sounded like universal truth. But sometimes Lateef took what was of interest to him and his philosophies and glossed over the difficulties. As a result, there’s sometimes an uncomfortable sense of entitlement in the way albums like Jazz ’Round The World took non-Western sounds and grafted them onto conventional structures.
Those philosophies were malleable – there is doubt among Islamic scholars as to whether that quote from Muhammad opening the piece is even accurate. This hadith – a prophetic tradition in Islam – has been classified by some scholars as da’if, or weak. This proverb is so widely circulated it’s unlikely to be an outright forgery. But as to whether these are really the words of the Prophet, it’s not clear.
There’s no doubt Lateef was sincere in word and deed, and his faith never wavered. In the 70s he went on to study Islamic education, and taught music all over the world. His philosophies share the rootlessness of his music. If Lateef’s music was inauthentic, perhaps that’s just a reflection of it being made with limited means. He played it on borrowed instruments, or those he bought in local thrift stores; early on in his career, he worked at a car plant in Detroit, limiting his study time. Albums like Jazz ’Round The World present alternative versions of non-Western music that are no less vivid for being fictions. His music set its own borders, but Lateef’s explorations within those self-imposed boundaries uncovered feelings of true freedom.