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.

Yusef Lateef

First, scroll back up, past that boss photo of Yusef, past my typically-rambling intro, and dig that album cover! A towering oasis in the middle of a barren desert, thriving with lush plant life. Waterfalls cascade and rainbows shimmer in the spray. A path winds up to a cave, in which Yusef presumably sits, playing his flute to an audience of tropical birds.

Yusef plays everything on this album: Flute, sax, synths, shannie, gourdophone, kalangu, water drum, and percussive sitar. The arrangements are quite spartan – one instrument takes the lead at any one time, and the backing is minimal, often consisting of a single synth line, a single bass line, and whichever percussive instrument Yusef felt like playing at the moment. It’s loose yet tense, and long stretches feel improvised. It’s easy to forget, though, that Yusef is improvising with himself.

It certainly feels like a symphony. It works as a continuous piece, with repeated themes and motifs across the four movements. But it’s only Little in terms of its length. In just 33 minutes, Yusef covers a vast amount of ground, like he’s taking a deep dive into the farthest reaches of his mind.

And I feel that’s what’s happening here: Yusef’s setting his own mind, his own thought processes, to music. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really sound like the paradise depicted on the cover. I’ve used the words “paranoid”, “austere” and “tense” to describe this music. But really, this music just sounds weary – as if Yusef is slowly retreating from the stress of the outside world. His inner space is the luxurious oasis in the middle of the barren desert. The truly transcendent moments on this album are the moments when he’s found his cave at the top of the winding path.

This feeling of transcendence usually comes when Yusef lets the more organic instruments take centre stage – the reeds, the flutes, and the percussion. Much of the rest of the symphony is dominated by synths. There are lot of bass drones, and a dour digital harpsichord sound intrudes upon even the most placid sections. Little Symphony is seldom pleasant to listen to. But that just makes the beatific moments of release all the more powerful.

I really didn’t like Little Symphonies the first time I heard it. I admired it, certainly. All the more so when I learned that this was all the work of one man. But it was challenging in a way I don’t generally expect new age music to be. This is definitely one for repeat listens. Even on my second listen I discovered scores of rich and rewarding mineral deposits in this barren inner landscape. And once I got to the end of my second listen, all I wanted to do was go back to the start and take a third voyage. By the middle of my third journey through Yusef’s land, I found that the oasis is there right from the start. You can’t see it, because you’re in it. The beauty is everywhere, so long as you immerse yourself.

So I was originally going to call into question whether this is new age music at all. My embryonic definition was that new age music is music that aims to make you feel better, and succeeds. I already need to revise that: Little Symphony is definitely new age music. It imagines a better place and invites you to stay there. The journey to inner peace isn’t always pleasant. But like they always say: Getting there’s half the fun.

For all the criticisms people throw at new age thinking, few would deny that it’s an outward-looking way of seeing the world. This might be why Yusef was happy to embrace the new age label. Speaking to the LA Times in 1989, he said that “the term doesn’t offend me. I don’t think it has any negative connotations at all.”

To me, it feels as though there’s a kind of aesthetic thread running through the improvisational musics of the world. If you’re alive and your heart is beating, you’ll find it, and that’s what makes the relationship between you and the world.

That feels like a very new age way of thinking. With new age music, even an album as deeply personal as Little Symphony can still feel worldly. There’s a whole world out there. But there’s a whole world in here, too. Is new age music music that seeks to bridge that gap?

Other Nominations for the 1988 Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording

Traveler is another spellbinding piece by another late flautist: Paul Horn. On some versions of the album, the cover depicts Paul’s flute as a golden vessel soaring along a runway, ready for take-off. As you can see above, other versions of the album favour the view from a futuristic cockpit for the cover. In any case, the feeling I got from this album was the same – you, the listener, are sat in the pilot’s seat, and it’s time to take a trip.

The vessel can travel through space and time, and a glance at the track names should give you some idea of the direction you’re heading in at any one given point. The title track is a deep space lullaby for flute, synth, and strings. Time Travel sounds like a short excursion to the court of King Arthur. Somewhat perversely though, Metropolis is a saunter through a jungle rather than a flight over a sprawling cityscape. The controls must be jammed! And in the midst of it all they dive within, with an extremely leisurely and perfectly-named ambient jazz piece called Soul Travel.

This is new age music as a fantastic adventure. It’s a calm yet invigorating exploration of numerous colourful worlds all viewed through the window of an incredible machine. It’s not as challenging or rewarding as Little Symphony, but it’s definitely a lot more fun.

In 1989, the award we’re investigating was still called The Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording. It wouldn’t become the Award for Best New Age Album until 1992. All this means is that, until 1992, individual songs were often nominated alongside full albums. I’ve no idea why some artists had albums nominated and some had songs. It doesn’t exactly seem fair!

The Field is a minimal arrangement for flute and string synths by Japanese maestro Kitaro. It’s completely free of percussion, and the melodies are slow and airy. So the track inspires the feelings of stillness and serenity that many associate with new age music. This definitely works as music for relaxation and meditation, so it should come as no surprise that almost every YouTube video sets the song to soothing static shots of the natural world.

But I feel like there’s a darkness beneath these haunting melodies. Is the field a lush expanse of buzzing life? Or a desolate battlefield littered with craters and corpses? Or both – a battlefield reclaimed by nature, with flower bulbs sprouting from the sockets of skulls? Life finds a way.

You’d best get used to the name Kitaro, by the way. He’s been nominated for the Best New Age Grammy at least 15 times. He’s won one, too!

Sweet Intentions is a magnificent instrumental by Montreux, a “chamber jazz ensemble” from San Francisco. It’s taken from their album Sign Language, which was released on my new favourite label, Windham Hill Records. Those guys had two separate compilations in the running for the first ever New Age Grammy. They were beaten to the punch yet again in 1988. Will their ship ever come in?

I’m a little confused here. For while some sources indicate that Sweet Intentions was the Grammy-nominated song from Sign Language, other sources suggest that the nod went to a different track, To Be.

To Be is fine. Better than fine, it’s fantastic. It’s a jaunty yet touching. And they even made a music video for it! Look at this:

Honestly, if you’re not smiling by the time that violin and mandolin duet begins, then I don’t know what to say.

But Sweet Intentions is by far the better track. Hearing it for the first time was one of those moments. You know what happens: You hear a song for the first time and everything clicks. Whatever you’ve left cooking on the hob in your brain boils over the edges of the pot and consumes you. That heart-stopping moment when you submit completely to the miracle you’re hearing – it’s happening quite regularly now that I’m exploring new age music. It’s wonderful. I’m falling in love with music again.

Anyway, the song. It opens with a cosy piano paired with that melodic bass sound you only tend to hear in the most tender and introspective of 1980s jams. A guitar comes in – beautifully recorded, with scratchy fret slides – and it’s soon joined by a gracefully soaring violin. That’s the bit that killed me on that first listen. It’s just gorgeous: Painfully lovely, profoundly moving. Darol Anger, you’re my new hero.

In just four and a half minutes, Sweet Intentions moves through various moods and plays with a number of themes. Things rise, and things fall. It’s bright yet tinged with sadness and regret. But it’s always looking towards the light, warmed by the memories of safer and more hopeful times. It could be the sound of life itself, provided that life is a life well-lived. I don’t want it to end.

Also from the Windham Hill stable is Reconciliation by Liz Story. Reading about Liz, it seems she was forced to learn how to improvise. She got a job playing piano in a French restaurant, but the piano had no means of supporting sheet music. So the style she developed is tasteful and unobtrusive enough to work for a French eatery, but with plenty of flourishes and excursions to keep things interesting and to reward close listeners. I feel like I’ll be spending a lot of time with Liz’s back catalogue as we enter the colder months of the year.

One further album was nominated for the 1988 New Age Grammy: Between Two Worlds by Patrick O’Hearn. This album’s not on Spotify, and certain comments suggest that the version that’s been uploaded to YouTube is remixed and incomplete. So I don’t really feel like I can talk about this one, as I can’t be sure that I’ve heard the version that got the nomination way back when.

But oh, the things I’ve heard! Forever the Optimist, the song I’ve embedded up there, is like a hand on your shoulder, a smile, and an assurance that everything’s going to be OK. Added bonus for fans of Mancunian proggy boys Oceansize: The chord progression may remind you of Music for a Nurse.

Yes, the synths and the percussion are a little dated. But music like this, music that nobly aims to heal and connect, is surely music for the ages.

NEXT TIME ON NAGCHAMPA – Shadowflax!

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