Yusef Lateef's music from the early '70s commands large doses of both appeal and skepticism. At a time when funk and fusion were merging with the intensely volatile and distrustful mood of the U.S., Lateef's brand of Detroit soul garnered new fans, and turned away those who preferred his earlier hard bop jazz or world music innovations. Thus The Gentle Giant is an appropriate title, as Lateef's levitational flute looms large over the rhythm & blues beats central to the equation. Kenny Barron's Fender Rhodes electric piano is also a sign of the times, an entry point introducing him to the contemporary jazz scene, and on that point alone is historically relevant. The post-Bitches Brew, pre-Weather Report/Headhunters time period is to be considered, and how this music put Lateef in many respects to the forefront of the movement. While inconsistent and at times uneven, there's more to praise than damn in the grooves and unique musicianship he offers with this small ensemble of focused and singular-minded players. At once funky and cool, Barron's "Nubian Lady" sets the tone out of the gate, the tune totally trumping Herbie Mann's Memphis Underground/Push Push style. The similar-sounding "Jungle Plum" is more danceable, simpler, and less attractive. While "Aftican Song" is also in this vein, it is less about the continent in the title as it is reflective of the era, and a slower number. Perhaps that actual title and the sleigh bell-driven "Below Yellow Bell" could have been reversed, for it is more Afrocentric, with Lateef's wordless vocal counterpoint closer to sounds of the savanna over a baroque rhythm & blues. "Hey Jude," under-produced to the point of inaudibility at the outset (the caveat given is "do not adjust the playback level on your audio equipment, readjust your mind"), busts out on the incessantly repeated "na na" chorus with the Sweet Inspirations doing the honors. The other tracks lay low, as Lateef and Al "Tootie" Heath's flutes and Kermit Moore's cello go into late-night mode for "Lowland Lullabye," "The Poor Fisherman" explores the leader's interest in Asian sounds with call and response, and "Queen of the Night" is a two-minute shortie with Eric Gale's modulated guitar mixing up meters of 4/4 and 3/4 in a slightly macabre way. This recording was produced in the middle of Lateef's commercial crossroads phase that started with the Atlantic label issue Yusef Lateef's Detroit in 1969 and ended in 1977 with the CTI release Autophysiopsychic. Though these tracks are potent reminders of how jazz was willfully being manipulated by the record companies -- Creed Taylor in particular -- this album is clear evidence of how great a musician Yusef Lateef was, but not in the context of his best music.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos