Always Something New—Remembering Yusef Lateef (1920-2013)
Yusef Lateef’s art traveled in higher dimensions, transcending medium or style. His telescope of intuition ranged far into deep space, towards new galaxies of thought and musical processes. He was a prototype of the modern renaissance artist. He refused to let any outside force define him or his activities.
Yusef Lateef and Adam Rudolph live in Milan 2012
Anyone reading this most likely already knows about the unique and deep beauty of Yusef Lateef’s sound. As with all the great musicians, we can recognize him upon hearing the first note. Yusef always said, “The tradition is to have your own sound.” And in fact the Dogon people of Mali have a word, “mi”, which describes the inner spirit of a person expressed though the voice of a musical instrument. When we hear Yusef play, we hear him always playing from the heart. I have witnessed both audience and performers moved to tears by his flute playing. I have heard Yusef play the entire history of the tenor saxophone in one solo. Always the story was deep, more than nine decades of life experience coming through—clear and beautiful. Look and listen: imagination, knowledge, and heartfelt expression are the guiding principles of real freedom.
I first met Brother Yusef in the summer of 1988 when I was living in Don Cherry’s loft on Long Island City, New York. We rehearsed there for a concert of Yusef’s with our group Eternal Wind (myself on hand drums and percussion, Charles Moore, Ralph Jones and Federico Ramos) plus Cecil McBee on bass. I was honored when Yusef asked me to bring my compositions for us to perform; in rehearsal he approached them with real interest and respect. That concert, produced by the World Music Institute, took place at Symphony Space in New York. Yusef had written all new music specifically for the occasion. I realize now that this was how he worked: every performance he did was always all new music. In the ensuing 25 years, Yusef and I performed and collaborated worldwide in many contexts: quartets, octets, with orchestras, and, most often in the last two decades, as a duo. He always brought new music and new creative processes and concepts to each concert and recording date. Yusef said, “With each project I try to do something I have never done before.” I have often reflected upon this; one of many seeds of wisdom that Yusef generously shared. For me, it suggests the idea of three qualities that I value deeply and which I saw Yusef embody in his life and work: creative imagination, studiousness and courage. A couple of personal experiences come to mind that illustrate these characteristics.
In 1995, when Yusef and I were discussing how to approach our second compositional collaboration The World at Peace for 12 musicians, Yusef suggested that for two of the movements I write for half of the instruments, telling him only which instruments I had written for, the tempo and how many bars it was. He would then compose, without seeing my music, for the other six musicians. At the same time, he would compose two other pieces, sending me only which six instruments he had chosen, the tempo and how many bars. So it also became my task to compose for the other six musicians without having seen what he had written. This seemed to me a brilliant and original idea. When we heard the combined music’s in rehearsal, we decided that three out of the four compositions worked, in that they sounded unlike any music we had ever heard before, while serving our expressive intentions.
Several years later, Yusef was asked by the Interpretations series to create an evening of music to celebrate his 80th year in a concert at Alice Tully Hall. In addition to asking me to compose some new music for this octet project, Yusef’s new idea was that we co-compose several pieces in a formula of writing alternating bars for the entire ensemble. For example, I would write the first five bars, he would write the next nine bars, I would write the next seven, and so on. The results were surprising, fresh and beautiful, and worthy of inclusion in the concert and the subsequent recording. On both of these occasions, I was inspired by Yusef’s courage and willingness to try completely new and unproven processes even in a major concert setting. And as I reflect upon it now, I wonder – how did Yusef think of these ideas in the first place? Yusef seemed to have no bottom to his wellspring of creative ideas, as anyone who has worked with him will attest.
The first recording I heard of Yusef’s was one of his early forays into an expanded western “classical” orchestration. As a fourteen-year-old growing up on the south side of Chicago, I was excited to be discovering both live and recorded music. I often raided my father’s vast record collection. The Centaur and the Phoenix thus found a regular rotation on my turntable and it still sounds fresh today. When I once asked Yusef about that recording, he told me he wanted to move beyond the codified instrumentation and harmonic materials prevalent at that time and “try something new.”
This amazing inventiveness seems to have always been in Yusef’s character. In the mid-1950s, he was one of the first improvising artists to embrace Middle Eastern and Eastern modes, rhythms, and instruments into his music. When asked about this, he told me that he wanted to have a long career creating music and to do so he would have to study as much about all kinds of music as possible in order to be able to vary his musical palette. Again, words to live by for the serious musician.
Yusef’s art traveled in higher dimensions, transcending medium or style. His telescope of intuition ranged far into deep space, towards new galaxies of thought and musical processes. He often referred to us as “musical evolutionists.” In speaking about his process he said: “When you get rid of one thing you have to replace it with something else.” As I see it, this means first having the courage to abandon something one may have invested years in developing. (In Yusef’s case, that was the harmonic structures that he and Barry Harris refined throughout the 1950s.) Then one must have the imagination to think of a genuinely new approach rooted in a foundation of musical substance and experience. This is no small task. Yusef’s amazingly diverse and inventive musical output of his last 25 years is testimony to his words. In 1985, following his return from four years of teaching, studying and performing in Nigeria, Yusef embarked on a new phase of his creative life. The way Yusef’s music opened up and expanded reminds me of his good friend and fellow evolutionist John Coltrane’s last years. In fact Yusef often quoted one of Coltrane’s favorite sayings: “Knowledge will set you free.”
As I see it, Yusef was a prototype of the modern renaissance artist. He refused to let any outside force define him or his activities. In addition to his compositions that have become central to the contemporary improvisers repertoire of “standards,” Yusef composed dozens of pieces for piano, chamber groups, choirs, and orchestras. He invented and built new musical instruments, carved bamboo flutes, taught scores of students, and published dozens of musical pedagogical studies (of which The Repository of Musical Scales and Patterns stands as one of the most important music reference books of the last 50 years). And this creative outpouring was not limited to music alone. In addition to earning his Doctorate in Education, Yusef painted and wrote two novels, Night in the Garden of Love and Another Avenue (which he made into an opera). He wrote several books of poetry, plays, and numerous articles on subjects ranging from Lester Young and Charlie Parker to Confucius and Martin Buber.
In 1992 Yusef started YAL records, which released over 36 recordings of what he called “Autophysiopsychic” music. He used this term to describe his music, which means “music coming from the physical, spiritual and mental self.” Over the years Yusef asked me to contribute my percussion, electronics, and arrangements to 18 of these recordings. He inspired me to start my own Meta records label and our two labels co-released several collaborative projects including Voice Prints (2013), Towards the Unknown (2010), In the Garden (2003), Beyond the Sky (2001) and The World at Peace (1997). Yusef was a great motivator: he made me aspire to realize my own creative potential. This is a gift I believe he has given to many.
Yusef, like all great artists, was never afraid of what others thought. He dedicated himself to following his own muse, cultivating his imagination with lifelong study and fearless experimentation. Although Yusef’s music had deep roots, he never wanted to recreate his past music. He always chose to make music that expressed what interested him in the present moment in his life. In 2010, when Yusef was awarded the NEA “Jazz Masters” award, they asked him to perform one of his older pieces with the Lincoln Center Big Band at the ceremony. Yusef informed them that his older music was not “where he was at” creatively any more. I was honored when a few days later he called and asked me to perform in duet with him for his portion of the evening’s events. The night of the awards Yusef and I stepped on stage following a rousing piece played by the Lincoln Center Big Band. After some moments of silence Yusef blew a solitary note on his bamboo flute. You could hear a pin drop—Yusef had (yet again) brought magic into the house. We continued with Tibetan bells, then moved to the blues via tenor saxophone and hand drums (accompanied by an electronic music tape that Yusef had created), then on into our piano and flute duet. Finally I played the didgeridoo while Yusef sang his rendition of the slave song “Brother Hold Your Light” (I want to get to the other side). Perhaps there had been some in attendance who initially wished to hear Yusef go back and revisit his music of the past. But Yusef wanted to present the person he was, who we were, at that place, at that time—in the moment of the now. Yusef received the standing ovation he richly deserved by an audience that included many of his peers. It was a great evening, and one I shall never forget.
In the fall of 2012 we did our last European tour around Yusef’s 92nd birthday, and in April of 2013 we played our last duet concert at Roulette in New York. Both in his playing and composing Brother Yusef continued to stay creative up to the very end. Only days before his passing he told me about new intervallic ideas he was developing. He sent his fourth symphony to the copyist only a couple months ago. This past October Yusef brought his sound and spirit to a concert of Go: Organic Orchestra at the Athenaeum in Hartford. It was his last public performance.
Adam Rudolph’s Aminita: Yusef Lateef with the Go: Organic Orchestra, recorded live in concert at The Electric Lodge in Venice, CA (2003).
Brother Yusef will continue to be an inspiration to many of us. I consider him to be my most important teacher, not only of music, but also of how to live as an artist and a human being. Over the years he became a true and dear friend. Anyone who spent time with Brother Yusef will testify to his kind and gentle nature. He radiated peace and love. He was a luminous being. To put it another way, as Yusef himself said recently, “Brother Adam, have you noticed the leaves waving to you? It’s okay to wave back.”
Adam Rudolph’s Morphic Resonance featuring Yusef Lateef with the Go: Organic Orchestra, also from the 2003 performance at The Electric Lodge.