The Nat Birchall Quartet ‘The Storyteller: A Musical Tribute to Yusef Lateef’ 2LP/CD (Jazzman) 4/5

When Gerald Short at Jazzman records suggested to Nat Birchall that a tribute to Yusef Lateef could work, it proved the old adage that it’s usually the simplest ideas that are the best. Recorded over two sessions almost a year apart, this is mostly a tribute to early Yusef, the Yusef of Eastern Sounds, Jazz Moods, The Cannonball Adderley Group, wood flutes and Impulse! This is Yusef from 57-65 creating and composing, experimenting and reimagining music from Istanbul and Delhi, Kyoto and Cairo and everywhere in-between.

The quartet give us interpretations of some classic tunes. A subtle reading of ‘Love Theme from Spartacus‘ stays true to Yusef’s original even down to the sublime soprano part. A bass-heavy version of ‘Ringo Oiwake’ is not quite as jazzy as Yusef’s version, but no worse for it with Birchall on reeds and John Ellis’ minimal piano staying true to the tune’s Japanese roots.

‘Morning’ is taken at a slightly faster tempo than the original with shakers, thumb piano and a super funky, heavy rhythm section, particularly Andy Hay’s drums giving it a really modern sound.

The introduction to ‘Ching Mau’ is given a Malian makeover; Nat’s bass clarinet catching us unaware as it merges with Michael Bardon’s bass and Ellis’ piano and suddenly lifts off into a very different space. To these ears, it’s ‘Brother John’, by another name, and although the band also give us a stunning version of one of Yusef’s most famous tunes, it’s near impossible for it to match the soaring heights of the live version with Mike Knock and Richard Williams.

Where this record really catches fire is on the original compositions, especially the stunning group effort ‘Mashanki’. It sounds like George Gruntz, Roland Kirk and Rufus Harley running riot in the souk with Adam Fairhall’s Harmonium solo and Hay’s off-kilter percussion building in intensity and moving the tune way over the border first to Egypt and then Arabia.

The rest of the album is giving over to Birchall originals. Album opener ‘Tales of Saba’ more than hints at what’s to come; wailing horns, bowed bass, and arrhythmic drums give way to a beautiful meandering, modal waltz. ‘Salaam Brother Yusef’ is a slow blues that doesn’t quite get going while ‘Not Yet Ornette’ is another side of Yusef, late-sixties, soul Jazz, Atlantic Yusef the perfect counterpoint to Brother from the Complete album.

‘Willow’s Walk’ could have been an outtake from Eastern Sounds. Bass and drums create a peaceful but brooding canvas for Birchall’s expansive solos. While ‘Inward Flight’ is joyful and uplifting, Fairhall’s piano soars and sings and Nat is magnificent, a Mancunian Pharoah Sanders; his warm rich tone perfectly expressing the obvious love he feels for the music.

For all the exoticism, experimentation and strange instrumentation, Yusef also had a great ear for a pretty and memorable tune and hearing his music in this context is a fabulous reminder of what a great composer and arranger he was. It also hints at some fantastic, exciting and originally new music still to come from Nat Birchall, an artist who has been around for a long time and finally getting the acknowledgement and respect that his music deserves.

For new listeners, ‘The Storyteller’ is a perfect introduction to the music of two incredible musicians. For the rest of us, it’s a simple idea, magnificently executed – I just wonder why nobody thought of it sooner?

Nick Schlittner

Read also:
Nat Birchall Quartet ‘Akhenaten’ CD (Sound Soul and Spirit) 5/5
Nat Birchall ‘Cosmic Language’ LP/CD (Jazzman) 5/5
Nat Birchall ‘Creation’ CD (Sound Soul And Spirit) 5/5
Nat Birchall ‘Invocations’ LP/CD (Jazzman) 5/5
Nat Birchall Quintet ‘Live in Larissa: Divine Harmony in Duende Jazz Bar’ 2LP (Sound Soul and Spirit) 4/5
Nat Birchall ‘World Without Form’ CD (Sound Soul and Spirit) 4/5