Aging like wine

Two decades do the music of Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk a world of good

The history of jazz is the history of reputations. Musicians who impressed critics during their primes, such as John Coltrane, tend to be held in ever higher esteem as the years go past, while artists tarred by negative notices throughout their careers are seldom granted access to the music's pantheon no matter how many albums they once sold. Chuck Mangione was huge 20 years ago, but few people care about him anymore. And it's unlikely that the colleges of the next century will routinely feature courses focusing on the collected works of Kenny G.

When it comes to performers who existed between these extremes, future reps are more difficult to predict. Some players who were regarded as talented but somehow less compelling or innovative than the finest of their peers have seen their recordings relegated to the round file. But just as many others have been rediscovered by generations uninterested in the baggage the musicians once carried.

Multi-instrumentalists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk fall into the latter category. Not long ago, their names seldom passed the lips of serious jazz connoisseurs, but the appearance of two new boxed sets--Lateef's The Man With the Big Front Yard and Kirk's Aces Back to Back, both on the 32 Jazz imprint--is an indication that things are different now. The reasons for this shift aren't complex: Lateef and Kirk both enjoyed popularity during the '60s, and their platters on Atlantic Records sold briskly by jazz standards. But Lateef was widely seen as having compromised his craggy art by cutting it with soul and R&B influences, and Kirk, literally a one-man horn section, was dismissed by plenty of reviewers as a novelty act.

Seen from a distance of decades, these opinions don't seem entirely unfounded: Lateef's late '50s work for companies such as Savoy was often more challenging than his Atlantic oeuvre, and Kirk's offerings were quite erratic, veering from one style to another at the least provocation. But their music is frequently thrilling, and if it doesn't always rise to the peaks routinely scaled by Coltrane and Charlie Parker, it's more fascinating than all but a handful of current releases. Moreover, the '60s-era focus of many '90s young lions means that Lateef and Kirk sound relatively contemporary even on tracks laid down when Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Kirk died of complications from a stroke in 1977, but Lateef has not yet gone the way of all flesh; though he's in his late 70s, he still teaches regularly at the University of Massachusetts, where he's a visiting professor of music. Furthermore, Lateef's creative activity didn't fall off after the 1960s: He has written extensively about philosophy, published short stories, and studied music for several years in Nigeria in the '80s--and he presently maintains a busy performance schedule. (He also owns and operates his own label, YAL Records.) But it's his early history that many of those just discovering him find most intriguing.

When he was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1920, he was called Bill Evans; fortunately for jazz fans familiar with the pianist Bill Evans, Lateef subsequently chose a Muslim moniker. By the 1950s, he was a resident of Detroit, a city whose artists never forgot that people like to dance. He could certainly play jazz in a pure manner (he served as a sideman for Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and other luminaries), but he also loved heavy rhythms, and he seldom shied away from them. Critics of the period sometimes saw this as a weakness, and others groused about his refusal to confine himself to a single instrument; in addition to saxes, he played flute, oboe, and even sang at times. But like Kirk, his virtuosity was inextricably bound to his music. Without it, the results would have been ordinary; with it, they could be memorable indeed.

The Man With the Big Front Yard collects four out-of-print Atlantic LPs made between 1967 and 1976: The Complete Yusef Lateef, Yusef Lateef's Detroit, Hush 'N' Thunder, and The Doctor Is In...and Out. The first of these, driven by a robust quartet, epitomizes Lateef's eclecticism. "Rosalie," a deliberate, flute-driven mood piece with overt African influences, is followed by "In the Evening," a smoky, romantic ballad; "Kongsberg," a rollicking soul turn; "See Line Woman," a modified post-bopper; and "You're Somewhere Thinking of Me," a doomy blues distinguished by Lateef's basso profundo. Detroit, for its part, employs a larger ensemble than does Complete (trumpeter Thad Jones and guitarist Eric Gale are part of the crowd) and is appropriately funky. "Bishop School" motors along on blaxploitation-era grooves; "Livingston Playground" is greasy and seductive; "Russell and Eliot" exudes a divertingly sinister aura; and "That Lucky Old Sun" is tasteful and heartfelt. And Lateef blows away lightweight selections such as "Eastern Market" and "Raymond Winchester" with line after melodic line of tenor beauty.

Hush 'N' Thunder and The Doctor Is In also zip back and forth between exploratory jazz and party music. On the former, "Come Sunday," a mournful flute ditty, segues directly into "The Hump," which sounds like a slightly more erudite version of the stuff Grover Washington Jr. was churning out in the mid-'70s; it's followed by "Opus Pt. 1," a hushed recitation that builds up to "Opus Pt. 2," a Junior Walker-esque throwdown complete with a chorus of whoo-whoos. These jarring transitions are capable of causing whiplash, but Lateef and his crew handle each approach with aplomb. And when they mate these worlds, as on "The Improvisers," from Doctor, the result is aural bliss that feels only a little guilty.

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