Album of the Week: Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds (1962)

So I was thinking, I bought this 1200 year-old Chinese clay flute and I’ve been learning to play it. It only has a scale of five notes, and it is like blowing over a Coke bottle, but I’ve written this piece called ‘The Plum Blossom”, and I think I can make it work.

The accomplished Dr. Yusef Lateef passed away 7 years ago in 2013, at the age of 93. He was 40 when he recorded Eastern Sounds in 1961. All this to say, the man was from a different era. “The idea of the album, as he tells it, was to have an oriental feel,” wrote Joe Goldberg in the liner notes. To quote The Big Lebowski, that’s not the preferred nomenclature, at least not today. The term “oriental” is about as dated as “negro”, but I think it’s important when approaching this album to consider the context of the time in which it was recorded and the artist’s intentions. Granted, I am a white person of no Asian descent, but to me Lateef’s exploration of Eastern Sounds are genuinely informed by his practice of Ahmadiyya Islam (a movement based in India) and, as the quote above shows, an interest in experimenting with instruments uncommon in the Western hemisphere.

This context in mind, it’s not hard to see why Eastern Sounds is Lateef’s most popular recording today. We begin with the aforementioned “Plum Blossom”, and indeed the Chinese flute, or xun, sounds a bit like a Coke bottle or jug instrument. It’s a bit funky, but it has legs. In particular it reminds me of Bennie Maupin’s bass clarinet on “Bitches Brew”: deep and ominous, but wonderful all the same.

The next couple tracks were penned by Lateef as well and continue the album’s theme, but after that we get just as many American standards. It breaks up the sound a bit, but these songs are lovely and mellow. This is also, with “Love Theme from Spartacus“, the only jazz album I can think of that incorporates a theme from a Kubrick movie, and to great effect.

A later highlight is “Purple Flower”, which has all the space and beauty of a 60s Miles ballad, albeit with no trumpet. The album rounds out with “The Three Faces of Balal”, on which bassist Ernie Farrow makes great use of the plucked rabab instrument.

This month, Lateef would have turned 100, and UMass Amherst has launched an online celebration of his life featuring music, writing, photos and more focusing on the late jazz legend. One thing I love in particular is this short NPR tribute by John Rogers on his friendship with Lateef. Yusef Lateef has a large discography, but Eastern Sounds is a great place to start. May his life and music be celebrated for centuries to come!

Listen to Eastern Sounds on Spotify.