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Nashville Scene No Fear

Lateef and Alexander bold enough to branch out

By Ron Wynn

JUNE 12, 2000:  Although jazz hasn't been a pop music since the swing era, its finest musicians have never ignored developments in that sphere or any other. Whether it's Sonny Rollins incorporating calypso influences into his solos, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing alongside Machito and Chano Pozo, or Stan Getz breaking ground via the bossa nova, great players utilize everything from blues feeling to funk beats and gospel sensibility without distorting or subverting their approach.

Multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef and pianist Monty Alexander are emblematic of musicians who've never been afraid to include ideas from other disciplines and genres in their music. Indeed, Lateef, who was born in Chattanooga but grew up in Detroit, was among the earliest jazz players to add the shenai (a double-reed instrument whose pitch and sound resembles the oboe) and the argol (a double clarinet) to his arsenal. He was one of the first virtuoso flute players in modern jazz and pioneered use of the oboe in a jazz context. Indeed, Lateef angered traditionalists in the '60s and '70s by venturing further away from his hard bop roots, exploring African and Asian themes, while relying more heavily on orchestration and pop arrangements.

Though his first dates for Savoy, Atlantic, and Prestige in the late '50s and early '60s were dominated by mainstream material, Lateef soon broke out of that mold. Such classic releases as Eastern Sounds, Live at Pep's, and his most controversial release Autophysiopsychic in 1977, moved light years beyond straight-ahead fare. Eventually, Lateef grew weary of music-industry politics and controversies over his artistic direction. He created his own label, YAL, in order to record whatever he desired. He's also periodically turned to teaching; Lateef spent much of the '80s in Nigeria working with university students, and in recent years has been a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Alexander, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, ranks with Joe Harriott and Dizzy Reece as one of the island's finest jazz musicians. Unlike equally talented comrades such as Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso who loved jazz but turned to ska and reggae early in their careers, Alexander switched to jazz despite enjoying great success with a teen band Monty and the Cyclones, an extremely popular attraction in Jamaican clubs from 1958-60. Upon emigrating to the United States in the '60s, Alexander began attracting attention backing vocalists in Las Vegas. Both vibes great Milt Jackson and veteran bassist Ray Brown recruited Alexander for gigs and helped him land recording sessions at Pacific Jazz, RCA, and Verve. Alexander's initial recordings displayed his fierce rhythmic dexterity, plus a flair for adept reworking of melodies.

But Alexander didn't abandon his heritage; while he's made many trio albums that reveal his debt to Oscar Peterson and Nat "King" Cole, he's also made intriguing LPs like 1988's Jamboree: Monty Alexander's Ivory & Steel, which skillfully blended calypso and reggae with jazz; Caribbean Circle in 1992; and last year's acclaimed Stir It Up, his tribute to Bob Marley. Alexander's latest, Monty Meets Sly & Robbie (Telarc), continues his nimble balancing act between jazz, pop, and Jamaican grooves. By comparison, the two-disc reissue The Last Savoy Sessions (Atlantic/Savoy) compiles pivotal late '50s Yusef Lateef material, showing him simultaneously celebrating and departing from hard bop.

Alexander's collaboration with arguably reggae's top production duo--drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare--works because neither tries to overpower nor alter the other's methods. Alexander's a freewheeling player whose solos cavort up and down the keyboard, forcing rhythm section mates to adjust or be overwhelmed. The productions and playing of Dunbar and Shakespeare establish prototype reggae backgrounds, then plug other participants into the formula. On the CD's 10 selections, Alexander lets the Dunbar/Shakespeare team define backgrounds in opening sections; then midway he cavorts, embellishes, and darts around, making wily statements, before returning to the previous framework.

At times, it seems every tune merges two separate songs. Such compositions as Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," Bobby Timmons' "Moanin," or Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" begin in rather static fashion, then Alexander zips into booming forays or rapid-fire lines, while Dunbar holds the beat or adds enticing percussive support and Shakespeare plows ahead underneath on bass.

Alexander's also a champion at buttressing tame compositions; "People Make The World Go Round" and "The In Crowd" aren't exactly challenging thematic material, but Alexander's adept tinkering and colorations enhance them without destroying the nuances that made them popular. While some have called this release "jazz dub," it lacks the thudding bottom or dense fabric of dub. It's more stripped-down funk, with Alexander's keyboard verve generating the intensity, and the Dunbar/Shakespeare tandem, along with occasional assistance from keyboardist Handel Tucker, saxophonist Jay Davidson, trumpeter Steve Jankowski, and drummer Desmond Jones, filling in the gaps. Monty Alexander's made more daring records than Monty Meets Sly and Robbie, but he hasn't made many that are more entertaining.

Yusef Lateef didn't make that many recordings for Savoy. His entire output consisted of 36 songs with three different bands cut over five days. For some reason, despite the title, this is only the first of two double-CD releases chronicling his full Savoy catalog. In addition, compiler Orrin Keepnews, unquestionably among jazz's all-time great producers and reissue coordinators, chose to feature the third band rather than the first on this set's opening disc. He then split the second CD between tunes done by the third and second units. Keepnews' reason for this procedure is that only two months elapsed between all the recordings, and it was easier to organize them in the manner outlined.

Whatever the rationale, the featured selections on disc one highlight Lateef's incomparable flute and oboe playing. His solo on "Oboe Blues" is mournful, yet compelling, while his flute work on "Angel Eyes" and "The Dreamer" dazzles with its range and fluidity. Lateef's clarity, smoothness, and full, rich sound weren't rivaled on the instrument until latter-day types like Hubert Laws. He never reaped the crossover success of Herbie Mann, but was a far superior player, as repeatedly evidenced throughout the two discs. Lateef was also a marvelous tenor stylist, especially on ballads. When doing numbers like "Can't Help Lovin' That Man," his strong, stirring tone and capable phrasing were indicative of a master player. He could also rear back and blow, but increasingly rejected that approach. "Moon Tree" and "Check Blues," as well as his robust solo on "Night in Tunisia," are reminders Lateef could have been a topflight performer on the tenor duel circuit.

The backing cast for these discs comprises a mixed lot. The finest player other than Lateef is Wilbur Harden on fluegelhorn. His lengthy bursts and upper-note theatrics are the only times on any numbers when Lateef's presence isn't missed. Bernard McKinney on euphonium occasionally turns an interesting phrase, but mostly pianists Terry Pollard or Hugh Lawson (then far from a polished improviser), or bassists Bill Austin or Ernie Farrow don't add any fireworks to the proceedings, either during solos or accompaniment. Drummers Frank Gant or Oliver Jackson actually are more interesting on percussion instruments than doing basic rhythms.

Still, Lateef's facility on various instruments certainly commands attention, whether in unison sections or alone. After hearing him navigate through familiar territory like "Stella By Starlight" and "Lover Man," it's not surprising Lateef soon began looking to other arenas for inspiration. Neither he nor Alexander has ever rejected the jazz tradition; they've simply refused to accept restrictive definitions of it. These releases are reflections of their desire to expand the jazz vision, and their ability to do it creatively and consistently.

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