Some Other Time (Yusef Lateef, 1920-2013)

25 Dec

Yusef Lateef had been on my mind lately. In part, I was inspired by his beautiful recent album with Roscoe Mitchell, Douglas Ewart, and Adam Rudolph, Voice Prints. It’s a perfectly named record, giving you a sense of the indelible trace voices can leave on the world, the impressions sounds leave behind after they’ve supposedly dissipated and been lost to the wind. The music is about volume, making the metaphor of musical “space” seem literal, making you believe that sound impresses space as much as space shapes sound. That voices–not just human voices–write something on the way to language.

I wanted to write a few words about him before he died, but I missed my chance. He died this week. Good obituaries here and here. They touch on his inquisitiveness, the seriousness of his research and writing, his commitment to creating a “autophysiopsychic music” beyond category. They sketch his celebrated desire to find new areas in music, and music in areas beyond the usual places.

What the term “world music” misses, in my hearing, is the sense of expanse and possibility, of an earned ecstasy and gradual enlightenment. Especially in his collaborations with percussionist Adam Rudolph, it’s a planetary music. It recalls, to my ear, what Glissant referred to as Relation

Not just a specific knowledge. appetite, suffering and delight of one particular people, not only that, but knowledge of the Whole, greater from having been at the abyss and freeing knowledge of Relation within the Whole.

I got to see Yusef Lateef perform once in Detroit with his Eternal Wind ensemble, which was totally transfixing. Sonny Rollins said of his passing that “We are blessed to have been on the planet the same time as Yusef Lateef.” The Detroit Jazz Festival happens on Labor Day on the River, and is usually abuzz with people who’ve had too many beers, who are waiting for the venue they really want to see, who are happy just to be out on a late summer night listening to music. This was one of two experiences I’ve had at an outdoor concert like this where the audience listened raptly, attentively, for the length of the set–about forty-five minutes I think, without much interaction between the musicians and the audience (the other was Roscoe Mitchell, in Chicago). The hustlers, the people fussing with their picnics and blankets, complaining about the sun and the heat, the children, all sat still and listened. I think Lateef introduced the band at the end. I don’t think he named any of the songs. He played his tenor sax and his flutes, he sang. The music was complex, engaging, difficult, beautiful.

My saxophone teacher told me he saw Yusef Lafeef play at Amherst where he played a solo master class. He played sax, flute, and probably the shehnai and other wind instruments, moaned, stomped and sang “Motherless Child,” a song very much about awareness of the abyss and the fragility of Relation as a process of change, and the transformative power of poetics and performance. “Any questions?” he asked. There were none. He had a way of giving answers to which we haven’t yet formed the right questions. He seemed to have answers from some other time, still etched in his music.

Ashé, Yusef Lateef. Thank you.

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