Yusef Lateef: “Eastern Market” (Yusef Lateef’s Detroit: Latitude 42-30 Longitude 83, 1969)
One of my favorite jazz bandleaders died just before Christmas. Yusef Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga in 1920, but grew up in Detroit and built the foundation of his career in the city’s underappreciated jazz scene (Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, the three Jones brothers and Paul Chambers all came from that scene, and Miles Davis weathered one of the toughest parts of his career there).
Lateef was an expressive and imaginative tenor sax player, but unlike most jazz musicians, who really work on mastering their voice on a single instrument, Lateef built an identity as a multi-instrumentalist, playing flute, oboe, and over a half-dozen non-Western reed instruments. Those non-Western instruments figured prominently in his adventurous and pioneering experiments in early world music on albums like Eastern Sounds, Prayer to the East and Into Something.
Coltrane was among the many who listened to those albums and took notes—the two never played together that I know of, but I would’ve liked to hear that. Lateef did play with many others, though, appearing as a sideman even long after establishing himself as an influential and capable bandleader. He played for both Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Grant Green, Olatunji, Art Blakey, and Les McCann, among many others; he’s not a household name by any means, but he’s thoroughly woven into the fabric of jazz made from the 50s through the 80s.
Over that span, he evolved capably, as did all the best leaders. His 1969 LP Yusef Lateef’s Detroit, looked back to his formative years playing in that city when it was at the peak of its might, with tracks named for the neighborhoods he spent his time in and the streets that defined his travels. “Eastern Market” is named for the huge farmer’s market just northeast of downtown (before I-375 was built and ripped their guts out, some of the city’s most thriving black neighborhoods were just south of this area).
I buy vegetables at Eastern Market a few times a year, and it still has the bustling, free-for-all feeling suggested by the shouted vocals at the end of this track (the guy who runs it, Dan Carmody, is an insightful thinker about the relationship between food and community). Really, listening to the whole LP as a Detroiter conjures the city, and even if it looks back to a time when the city’s fortunes were much different, it still isolates the feelings that make the city special.
Lateef’s arrangements reflect the rhythmic, psychedelic music that the city had become famous for producing. The band includes a 19-year-old Chuck Rainey on bass, with a cameo by Cecil McBee, Ray Barretto on congas, Bernard Purdie on drums, and guitarist Eric Gale. Lateef gets funky on the flute and throws in some inventively arranged strings, too; it’s soul jazz where the combination doesn’t neuter either one.
This was the kind of synthesis Lateef could pull off. He knew how to pick a band and shape the music around it. Listen to the space he gives Purdie here. Everything is loose-limbed and grooving. The album ends with Lateef on tenor, playing through the standard “That Lucky Old Sun” with incredible depth of feeling, almost as if to remind that he was a hell of a straight jazz player as well as an experimentalist.
Lateef spent a lot of his later career teaching jazz at universities. He died at his home near Amherst, Massachusetts, where he taught as UMASS and Hampshire College. He was 93. If you care at all about jazz, give this guy a few thousand moments of your time. It will be worth every one of them.