Legend of jazz, and beyond, ends concert series at the Pallas Theater

Veteran jazz musician Yusef Lateef, now 87 and still performing, will close an ongoing cycle of concerts at the Pallas Theater in Athens, the Jazz Masters series, this Thursday night. Besides his career’s longevity, the virtuoso of saxophone and various wind instruments, principally flute, has stood out as a sustained inquisitive spirit since emerging as a recording artist 50 years ago. Though generally branded a jazz artist, Lateef has, in essence, disregarded the tag and consistently explored his musical urges with little consideration for structure or predetermined style. Renowned for his innovative blending of Eastern music with American jazz, Lateef, born William Emanuel Huddleston, was a proficient saxophonist by the time he graduated from high school, in the late 1940s, when he turned professional and began touring with a number of swing bands. Indicative of the emerging act’s potential, Lateef was invited to join Dizzy Gillespie’s world-renowned orchestra in 1949. Lateef began releasing his own work several years later, in 1957. By the early 60s, he had begun finding a distinctive style within the context of a band, as conveyed by two albums released within three months of each other in 1961, «Eastern Sounds» and «Into Something.» Both albums came as clear indicators of his Eastern influences. Lateef used instruments such as the rahab, shanai, arghul, and a variety of Chinese flutes and bells along with his tenor saxophone and flute. Lateef’s sound from this era is considered to have been a major influence on fellow saxophonist John Coltrane, whose later work – Coltrane died in 1967 at the age of 40 – contains similar Eastern traits. Highlighting the connection, Lateef released work on Coltrane’s label, Impulse, between 1963 and 1966. By the late 1960s, Lateef had begun incorporating soul and gospel into his music, with a blues base, as exemplified on albums such as «Hush’n’Thunder.» Reflecting his dislike of the terms «jazz» and «jazz musician,» which he felt understated the detail of his work, Lateef began experimenting with New Age and spiritual elements in the early ’80s. «Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony,» an album released in 1987, won the veteran musician the Grammy award for Best New Age album. Even so, his fundamental influences have always been rooted in jazz. In 1992, Lateef founded his own label, YAL Records, on which he has since released work. Despite his growing musical experience as a live and recording artist, Lateef did make several returns to college. These returns to theory peaked in 1975, when Lateef completed his dissertation on Western and Islamic education and earned a Ph.D. in Education. A few years earlier, he had taught courses in autophysiopsychic music at the Manhattan School of Music. In addition to his work as a performer, Lateef has continued to release recorded pieces, much of it live albums depicting shows. For Thursday’s performance in Athens, Lateef will be accompanied by a quintet comprised of Lionel Belmondo on sax and flute, Stephane Belmondo on trumpet and flugelhorn, Laurent Fickelson on piano, Sylvain Romano on double bass and Dre Pallemaerts on drums. Preceding Thursday’s finale to the Jazz Master series, another jazz great, Charles Lloyd takes the stage tonight. Nowadays working regularly again after abandoning the scene – at the height of his fame in the 1970s – for an extended period, Lloyd, 69, is regarded as a pioneering figure in world music. Lloyd has a background to match. His ancestry includes African, Cherokee Indian, Mongolian and Irish roots. Lloyd and his band of the mid-to-late 1960s ranked as one of the era’s most celebrated in pop culture, as highlighted by appearances at the Fillmore venue in San Francisco, hallowed ground back then for top-selling rock acts, among them The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Lloyd and his band were the first jazz group to play the venue. After a lengthy absence, Lloyd staged a full-scale comeback in the late 1980s with albums coming at the rate of about one a year on the prestigious ECM label. Jazz Masters series, Pallas Theater, 5 Voukourestiou St, Syntagma, Athens. Tonight, Charles Lloyd; Thursday, Yusef Lateef. For ticket information (30-70 euros), call 210.321.3100.