Thursday, 26 December 2013

Au Revoir, Yusef Lateef

I’m seriously getting tired of this. Seems like every horn man I admire has passed on. Maybe it is a function of the fact that I do not especially like neo-con jazz and do my best to avoid those young conservatory players who approach the music in the same way a classical violinist does, following the rules, loaded with technique but void of creativity and innovation. This week Yusef Lateef left the earth. At least Yusef made it to the advanced age of 93 – unlike most musicians of his generation, he must have had some health care.

Jackie mentioned to me last week that her high school concert band was chock-a-block with saxophonists and as one of the seniors she was asked to diversify and play either oboe or bari. At one time I played oboe in school and told her that my inspiration to do so was Yusef Lateef, maybe the only jazz player in history to do anything worthwhile on that cool-sounding but testy and inflexible double reed. I asked her to seek out some of Yusef’s music on YouTube. A premonition?

Yusef came up in 1940s bebop and blues when cities like Detroit had a thriving scene of their own; he was a tenor player at the core, but by the 1950s he began to introduce other instruments to his repertoire, pioneering what came to be labeled as “world music”. Unlike many pioneers, however, he was not shot dead in his tracks and survived to play music that nobody else had in their head. Like contemporary Rahsaan Roland Kirk, many admired him but nobody copied him. And he stood out from Trane’s mighty shadow.

In reading obits in the Detroit Free Press and New York Times, I find it ironic that Yusef gained academic music degrees only after he had already been one of jazz’ leading hornmen for decades. Who could possibly have been good enough to teach him? And subsequently, what became of his own students? Apparently he turned to academia to eat well, teaching at U. Mass. Amherst in the 1970s, a period when luminaries like Archie Shepp and Max Roach were on the faculty.

Although Yusef’s music took off for outer space, he was rooted in the blues, no better shown than in the 1960 recording 'Teef under Louis Hayes’ name on VeeJay, a straightahead workout which is a favorite of mine. I also particularly like Live at Pep's Vols. 1 and 2 on Impulse from the mid-60s. Yusef continued recording until earlier this year, his last, Light by the Universal Quartet, done in Denmark just this past spring at age 92.

One less legend around to inspire us. Jackie ended up choosing baritone.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Unfortunately, I Was Right About Stan Tracey

I wish there would be some news in the jazz world other than the greats leaving us one-by-one. My premonition last July was correct in the case of Stan Tracey, as I went out of my way while in Scotland last summer to see him at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, only to be disappointed when he was a no-show at his own gig. I thought it perhaps my last chance to see the legendary house pianist from Ronnie Scott’s, and unfortunately I was right; Stan passed away this week. No more to be heard from the man for whom accompanying the likes of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster every night for seven years was like "Christmas every day" (shades of Elmo). See his lengthy Guardian obit here.

Jim Hall left us this week as well. Most notable in my book for joining Sonny Rollins’ 1962 re-entry-from-outer-space album The Bridge, Jim played subtle guitar with virtually everybody in jazz, proving that you don’t have to be a million-note-a-minute twiddler to be a great player. If only more would listen and adopt his approach. From his New York Times obit: Mr. Hall never took his mastery of the guitar for granted. “The instrument keeps me humble…Sometimes I pick it up and it seems to say, ‘No, you can’t play today.’ I keep at it anyway, though.”

To think that someone whose mastery of the instrument appeared so effortless was actually still intimidated by it after playing for 73 years. I don't feel so bad now on those days when practice seems like work and I feel like a small child picking up my horn for the first time.