Review Summary: Eastern Sounds brings oboe, Chinese globular flute, and other instruments to the hard bop table yet still remains accessible and fun.
“It will soon be axiomatic, if it is not already, that there is a close relationship between American and Near Eastern improvisational music.”
The opening lines of the original liner notes from Eastern Sounds, written in 1961, are frighteningly prophetic. Not only have Eastern and American music found similarities and partnerships in years since 1961 (George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, for example), but the cultures of the two areas of the world have clashed. The music that inspired these liner notes puts Yusef Lateef in that prophetic position, blurring the lines between Eastern and Western music. A man always interested and experimenting with Eastern music, inspiring John Coltrane to do the same, Yusef managed to bring a completely different side of jazz to the table, although the world overlooked it because of Miles Davis and his Kind of Blue era. Even today, Eastern Sounds is a fresh, vibrant album.
Lateef is a master of woodwind instruments, most notably the oboe and the tenor saxophone. However, he begins Eastern Sounds on the Chinese globular flute, an instrument capable of producing only five different pitches. The instrument embodies his circular style perfectly, forcing him constantly to return to the same pitches and melodies. Plum Blossom
has the same effect as the Wayne Shorter composition Nefertiti
, repetitive in nature but always changing through expression of the melody and similar ideas. The flute gives the song a unique sound, unlike anything ever heard in jazz music to that point. Plum Blossom
sets the standard and the mood for the entire album, easily the most experimental song on the album but still easily accessible. Still, the rest of the album is not just standard jazz fare. Blues for the Orient
follows a typical blues chord progression, but Lateef picks one of the least jazzy instruments in the world, the oboe, and puts a completely new spin on a standard 12-bar blues. He continues the soloing style from Plum Blossom even though the oboe gives him plenty of freedom to try different melodic ideas. When he finishes to give the piano a chance to solo, the mood of the entire album changes and sounds like a completely different album, like just another jazz album rather than a great blend of unique Eastern melodies and jazz grooves. Lateef proves that just a simple choice in instrumentation can change everything.
What made Eastern Sounds so accessible to many different people was the use of familiar melodies, such as the love theme from "Spartacus" and the love theme from "The Robe." Many jazz historians find that jazz musicians have an affinity for movies because when they improvise, they create a story. They play a movie in their head. Movie music must accompany a visual setting and mood, and in that way, soundtracks find a fitting place next to jazz. Yusef plays the melody from Spartacus on his oboe, but for the most part, pianist Barry Harris sets the groove and style for the song. It is uptempo and almost Latin. Love Theme from The Robe
is the same style, except that Yusef uses a flute rather than the oboe. The standard flute might be his best instrument, his tone is impeccable and he plays musically. He does not play technically, but his melodies sing from the recording better than any other does. Ethnic percussion outlines the groove for the song, much like a bossanova. Lateef brings new life to these themes from movies and makes them his own, finding plenty of inspiration and ideas from the original compositions.
The best songs on the album, however, are the ballads. Don’t Blame Me
, featuring Yusef on tenor sax, sets a mood different from the Eastern, far-reaching style set on the album’s opening tracks. Don’t Blame Me
is straight-up, legitimate jazz with no experimentation or strange sounds. Purple Flower
plays in the same ballad style, but instead it has much more subtle melodies, a sort of brooding feeling where nothing is prominent. Both ballads never get technical, but the balance of the group and the musicianship with which they play makes the songs a joy to listen to. Some of the album takes yet another style, based upon rhythmic grooves set by the bass and drums. Snafu
begins with a stumbling melody, where Lateef struggles to play the runs he composed. However, he plays the most confident and impressive solo of the album afterwards, which makes up easily for the difficult melody. The bass groove remains constant and aggressive throughout the song, a highlight on the album for bassist Ernie Farrow.
Eastern Sounds combines the highest echelon of hard bop jazz with Eastern melodies and instruments to create an album that is timeless and always original. The experimentation of the album is impressive, but the album’s accessibility is even more impressive, bringing unique instruments to the table without becoming unlistenable. For anyone looking delve deeper into jazz, look no further than Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds.
Blues for the Orient
Love Theme from "The Robe"