It’s fair to say that it’s not every day you get to listen to a previously unknown and unreleased recording by one of the true icons of jazz. Even more to the point, one at the peak of their musical powers. And yet, this is exactly what we have here. London label and vinyl specialists Gearbox Records seem to be making a habit of unearthing hidden gems – old and new – and they have raised the bar once more with this one. This is a live recording from Yusef Lateef, the brilliant, trailblazing multi-instrumentalist whose fusing of jazz and Eastern music was a significant influence on some of the finest musicians of an era, including John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s on 15th January 1966, Lateef is accompanied by the house band of that time; pianist Stan Tracey, double bassist Rick Laird and drummer Bill Eyden. Most of the repertoire played comes from Lateef’s earlier recordings for Savoy and Prestige such as “Jazz Moods” and “Eastern Sounds”. The evening’s performance was recorded by Les Tomkins at the request of Ronnie Scott. The musicians were unaware they were being recorded as Scott believed they would be at their best and most unselfconscious this way.
The set begins in a somewhat reflectively esoteric mood with “Angel Eyes”. Lateef plays the flute on this opening track, immediately enthralling the listener with his subtlety and gorgeous phrasing. Sensitive backing from the rhythm section help create an atmosphere of laid-back late night jazz indulgence.
There’s a lovely warmth to the recording that makes me feel like I’m actually sitting in the audience, listening and watching attentively. My initial impressions however, did give me some cause for concern. I’ll be totally honest and say that at first I was disappointed with the overall sound of the recording. Even allowing for the fact that this was 1966 and was most probably recorded with limited mics and equipment, it felt like I was listening to a slightly above average bootleg recording, rather than an album that had been lovingly mastered from the original 1/4″ tapes. The piano can barely be heard and the drums are too low in the mix. There’s also a fair amount of incidental noise here and there. But… and this is important, I now have 2 points to make on this. 1; the importance of this recording in its historical context and the performance from Lateef and co on the night, by far outweighs the relevance of the sound recording, and 2; the more I have listened to the album as a whole, the more I have come to think that I actually really like the sound. Yes, there are flaws, but surely that’s all part of the atmosphere itself. Once I embraced this instead of questioning it, I came to appreciate the whole thing so much more, and it enabled me to enter into the spirit of the performance and the recording to the point that I’m now loving everything about what my ears are hearing.
On “Blues For The Orient” Lateef plays the shenai, a kind of oboe. This live version of the tune that first appeared on “Eastern Sounds” is slightly longer than the studio version and really swings. The handclaps from the audience just add to the groove and the cool vibe. Lateef gives room for his fellow musicians to take the lead and collectively contribute – especially Stan Tracey on piano. Lateef is generous and gracious in introducing his band for the night, and the feeling I get is one of collaboration and pleasure from all four of the musicians on the stage.
The band-leader switches to the Chinese flute for “Song of Delilah”. His performance on this tune especially is quite magnificent. I love the bass as its bluesy overtones work wonderfully around Lateef’s awesome free playing. When he gets into the groove on this track and really goes for it, it’s truly a pleasure to behold.
Back on a more conventional flute for the more spiritual sounding “Last Night Blues”, Lateef shows all his skills in blending an emotive Eastern spirituality with Western jazz. The results are mouth-watering with the bass riff once more holding everything in place whilst Lateef improvises around a theme.
The final track “Yusef’s Mood” is the only track that features the multi-instrumentalist on tenor sax. Easily the most upbeat tune of the session, it brings the house down with its infectious rhythm and crowd-pleasing joyous nature. I love the fact that you can hear the audience getting involved in the tune as it all adds to the atmosphere of what must have been a fabulous night at Ronnie’s.
Full credit has to go out to Gearbox Records for unearthing and making this long-lost recording available. It’s a little gem of a find, and a must-have purchase for Lateef fans and jazz officianados alike.