From his first explosion of recordings in the mid-'50s, Yusef Lateef was a player who was always gently stretching the boundaries of his music to absorb techniques, new rhythms, and new influences from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The Centaur and the Phoenix, however, takes the risks and the innovations that Lateef was known for, and expands them in a number of different directions all at once, leading to an album that bursts with new ideas and textures, while remaining accessible, and above all, beautiful. Lateef seems eager here to take the next step musically by breaking the mold of his previous albums. While he is a gifted composer, only a third of the songs featured here are his work: the rhythm-driven flute showcase "Apathy," the gentle, nocturnal tribute to his daughter "Iqbal" and the tone poem "The Philanthropist." The best of the rest come from Kenny Barron, who was only 17 at the time, and Charles Mills, a contemporary classical composer who drew the album's self-titled highlight from two of his symphonies, the first paying tribute to Crazy Horse and the other to Charlie Parker. Providing the structure and textures needed for these intricate compositions was Lateef's largest ensemble to date. Accustomed to working in a small-group format, he makes managing a band of nine sidemen seem easy. Several Lateef regulars are here, including Barry Harris, Richard Williams, and Ernie Farrow, but the inclusion of forward-thinking musicians like Joe Zawinul also help take this album to a higher level. The greatest miracle of this recording, however, is the balance that Lateef achieves with this large group -- they are always an asset, never a distraction, and even as they come on strong and powerful on songs like "Apathy," or Barron's arrangement of "Ev'ry Day (I Fall in Love)" he remains in charge, somehow making his delicate flute (or oboe, tenor sax or argol) rise above it all, spilling out brightness, grace and joy.
AllMusic Review by Stacia Proefrock