One musical genre I can’t claim to be any sort of expert in is jazz. For many years I was deeply cynical – it was, to my ears, self indulgent and tedious. Odd, given that my father had brought me up on a strict diet of Miles Davis. Gradually though, having exhausted most other areas of popular music I was drawn in. Mingus Ah-Um was a significant turning point as was Coltrane’s Crescent but if there is one piece of music that has really led to my increased love of jazz its Lateef’s Theme from Spartacus from the wonderfully exotic, mellow and superbly-played Eastern Sounds - a record that has taught me that only jazz can create such joy in the space around the music itself (which in turn has led to an appreciation of such great musicianship).
The album was a mixture of standards, film themes and Lateef's own pieces. It is not an exaggeration to say that he could claim to be the first western musician to properly incorporate ‘world music’ into his sound having used eastern instruments since 1957 when he began recording as a band leader. By 1961, with the recording of Into Something and Eastern Sounds, he had emerged as the pre-eminent jazz musician using eastern influences in his work (John Coltrane in particular had been experimenting with similar sounds but had not recorded them). Lateef used a variety of instruments including the rahab, shanai, arghul, koto, Chinese wooden flutes and bells along with his tenor, oboe and flute and incorporated the eastern influence into the more established jazz sound of the day, hard bop.
Sounds would be one of Lateef’s most enduring recordings and was one of the last made by the band that Lateef shared with pianist Barry Harris after the band moved to New York from Detroit, where the jazz scene was in decline. The session, recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, was dominated by Lateef’s exploration of Eastern sound, as well as his improvisation. His genius was to situate them within a context that was accessible to Western ears.
His band was one of the best. As well as Harris, he had Lex Humphries on drums whose brushwork was deemed the most deft and inventive of almost any player in jazz. Bass and rabat player Ernie Farrow was no slouch either. The album kicks off with The Plum Blossom, a mellow but haunting oboe, flute and piano piece that comes from an Eastern scale and works in repetitive rhythms. It is second track Blues for the Orient however where things really take off. Harris' playing in particular is outstanding with the piano almost holding the tune together in the middle eight while Lateef’s oboe accompaniment almost moans over the notes as the track veers from jazz standard to eastern souk and back again.
Third track Ching Miau evokes some of Coltrane's work, the tenor saxophone picking out an infectious melody. The band’s version of Don’t blame me ( a cover of a jazz standard) meanwhile starts in contemplative mood, evoking the rainy streets of an American City. This is a masterclass in playing with both Lateef and Harris wringing pure emotion out of their instruments – jazz at its very best.
Both key players also sound great on Snafu, the most upbeat number on an otherwise fairly mellow album. This, to these ears at least, has a slight latin feel. Purple Flower is one of the most understated tracks while Three Faces of Balal is the shortest track at just two and a half minutes but features a wonderful double bass outro which is quite unlike the rest of the record.
Then there are the two cinematic themes - from the aforementioned Spartacus and The Robe. Both are utterly, hauntingly beautiful. Spartacus features great interplay again between Lateef and Harris and is set against a shuffly drum beat. Some argue that it suffers by comparison with Bill Evans' more widely known 1963 readings on Solo Sessions (Milestone) and Conversations with Myself (Verve) but throughout the whole album the respect with which Lateef incorporates the Eastern influences and the emotion with which he plays them make this album a landmark jazz recording which still sounds wonderful some 50 years later. This is a record that relaxes the mind and draws you in to the wonderous world of the possibilities of music. Seek it out.