Yusef Lateef’s Inner Visions of Inner Landscapes

Yusef Lateef Little Symphony

The second album to win the Grammy for Best New Age Recording will certainly take you places. You might not necessarily enjoy the journey, but the destination is bliss.

The late Yusef Lateef was a worldly innovator, a boundary-breaker who never once rested on his laurels. He didn’t so much book studio time as set himself new challenges – fresh fusions to try, fresh frontiers to conquer. His body of work is an ocean of sound, and I’m still paddling in the shallows.

Up until very recently, I’d only heard one of his albums: 1957’s Before Dawn, which I acquired through Jonny Trunk’s astoundingly generous 50p Friday initiative. Trunk describes Before Dawn as “one of the greatest jazz records of all time.” And while I don’t think I’d count it among my very favourites, its irresistibly groovy progressive bop sounds are often exactly the sort of sounds I want to hear.

30 years after Before Dawn, Yusef Lateef would win the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording for Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony. As a band leader, it was at least his 37th album. It also seems it was the last record he ever put out.

To go straight from the warm and organic Before Dawn to the austere and paranoid Little Symphony was a bit of a shock. I can only imagine the adventures that took place between his late 50s cool and his late 80s visionary period. I’ve got a lot of listening to do!

But first, let’s munch over the mysterious odyssey that won the New Age Grammy in 1988.

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Andreas Vollenweider’s Moonage Daydream

Andreas Vollenweider Down to the Moon

The winner of the inaugural Grammy for Best New Age Recording is a slap bass neon fairytale, with bells.

In an attempt to better understand what makes New Age Music New Age Music, I’m going to study ever album that ever won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.

I’m calling this project the New Age Grammy Challenge: Healing Assessments of Musicians Perceived as Awful, or NAGCHAMPA for short.

Or maybe I’ll just refer to it as my New Age Grammy Challenge Thing.

The Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was introduced in 1987. The first ever award went to Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider for his 1986 album Down to the Moon. It’s a totally tropical deep dive into a muggy fairy realm. It’s the only album I can think of that could soundtrack both a magical fantasy adventure and a gritty ’80s cop drama. It sounds otherworldly, but it also sounds like pastel shirts in a neon mall.

If all the winners are this interesting, this is going to be a very fun challenge indeed.

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My New Age Mission Statement

New Age Enya

I have 59.2 hours of New Age music in my library.

All the usual suspects are there. Enya. Laraaji. Iasos. Constance Demby. I’ve got a lot of more obscure stuff too, plus a few compilations. Among those is Light in the Attic’s astounding I Am The Center collection, which I hold responsible for getting me into this New Age thing in the first place.

Some of this music is self-consciously New Age music – as in, the artist themselves said “this is New Age music!” Some of it is music that I myself have labelled as New Age. You might disagree with some of my labelling.

Some of this music was specifically recorded to aid meditation or to soundtrack rituals. I’ve got some excellent recordings of Tibetan singing bowls, for example. Some of this music was created for specific occasions or spaces. But some of it is simply ambient music with a worldly, spiritual or “ethnic” feel to it.

And yet, it all sounds like New Age music to me. But what makes New Age music New Age? What separates New Age music from, say, ambient music? Or “world music”? What sets it apart as a genre in itself?

It’s not just that it’s blissfully naff. So what else could it be?

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