This massive four-disc set of Yusef Lateef's first recordings as a leader was issued by Spain's Fresh Sound imprint and contains a total of eight different records, all but one recorded under the guidance of engineer Rudy Van Gelder for the Savoy, Verve, and Prestige/New Jazz imprints. Considering he was 37 when he began recording as a leader -- and had served tenures in New York with Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, and Ernie Fields -- Lateef was fully developed as a composer and arranger. His band for these sessions is stellar. His Detroit crew was comprised of monsters even as the band mutated a bit: the original unit featured Lateef with trombonist Curtis Fuller, bassist Ernie Farrow, pianist Hugh Lawson, and drummer Louis Hayes. Changes would take place later in the year: Oliver Jackson replaced Hayes, and flugelhorn boss Wilbur Harden took over the chair vacated by Fuller. In the Lateef vision, these differences were all part of the plan: exploring his passions in uniting African and Asian folk traditions with American music.
Some of the albums included here are now considered legendary sessions. Those include Jazz for the Thinker, Jazz Mood, Before Dawn, and Other Sounds. The other four -- Stable Mates, Jazz and the Sounds of Nature, Prayer to the East, and The Sounds of Yusef -- are no less satisfying. That said, only one of these recordings (Other Sounds,) has remained continually in print during the CD era. While it was not uncommon for recording artists to spend loads of time in the studio (the system was different then than it is now), making records and getting paid in addition to gigging at clubs, eight albums (and part of a ninth) is a lot of work in a year for anyone. This only underscores the depth of commitment Lateef and his collaborators had when it came to exploring new sounds, and incorporating different scalar elements, tonalities, and in Lateef's case, instruments, into the group sound. Lateef alternately plays tenor, flute, argol, scraped gourd, and an Indian reed whistle. While the music perhaps sounded otherworldly at the time, it always swung, no matter how much space was incorporated, no matter the rhythmic structure, melody, and lushly integrated harmonic sensibilities among the musicians, which were part of the core musical architecture. Some of the key tracks here are "Happyology," "Morning,""8540 Twelfth Street," "Taboo," "Love Is Eternal," and the title track to Before Dawn. Check the slightly angular structure at the beginning of "Space," from Jazz Mood: one can hear a gorgeously knotty nod to Thelonious Monk's compositions of the era, but it's all Lateef.
While it is true that sometimes Fresh Sound offerings are lacking in quality, this set, for the most part, is quite good. The sound is requisitely full and warm. A/B'ing from the LPs, it represents quite accurately the range and depth -- especially in the piano and basslines -- what is there. The price is also quite reasonable for such an extensive collection. The booklet contains the liner notes to each of the individual albums, and full session details. This is a fine investment for the jazz fan in general, and essential for those deeply interested in the still futuristic work of Lateef.