A half-a-century following its original release, Prayer to the East by Yusef Lateef remains a seemingly blessed moment of creative interaction between American modern jazz and the music of the so-called Arab East, the latter evoked in essences ranging from snippets of traditional musical scales to picture postcards of Tunisian nightlife. The second half of the '50s was a busy period for Lateef, at that time under contract to the Savoy imprint. This album as well as three others were all cut in October of 1957, establishing as much documentation as could ever be needed of a transition from a player in the swing context of bandleaders such as Lucky Millinder and Hot Lips Page to a bold adventurer. Extended improvisations and the introduction of unusual instruments were important parts of this development and these recordings, yet the impression should not be one of austerity. Lateef's use of the flute turned out to be commercial, one of many instances of this particular axe finding more favor among the listening public than it tends to within the ranks of musicians themselves. Lateef and comrades may have been going for deep listening, still it is worth pointing out that an admirer of sides such as Prayer to the East pointed out how much fun him and his buddies used to have listening to this music while playing pool.
The lengthy "Night in Tunisia" is nothing but a great moment in small modern jazz combo recordings, allowing Lateef's budding interest to bloom in an intriguing light. Flugelhornist Wilbur Harden was also a collaborator of John Coltrane's in the same period. The brassman dodges imitations of the song's composer, high-note trumpet maestro Dizzy Gillespie, instead hovering in his mid-register, revealing a joke in a turn of phrase as if he was being spied on. The album's title track comes from drummer Oliver Jackson, so tightly affiliated with swinging syncopation that his nickname was "Bops Junior." Later drummers working in Lateef's combos such as Frank Gant and of course Elvin Jones would introduce more polyrhythms, percolating a brew that by the end of the '50s had much less of the aroma of a mainstream cup of jazz. Some listeners may find, however, that a player such as Jackson creates more excitement, more workable dynamics, the tension of a stylistic clash that is inevitably hinted at rather than shouted. "Lover Man" may have been an overdone number in the jazz combo repertory even by 1957; the subsequent years would only redeem this particular performance were it more substantial. A formidable Lateef original and Les Baxter's "Love Dance" are the two concluding numbers, each in the six-minute range without a wasted moment in either case. The leader's improvisations are perfect, full of interesting choices of register, a man in motion who somehow masks his true dimensions.