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Adam Rudolph and Bennie Maupin pay loving homage to mentor Yusef Lateef by evoking his aesthetic rather than imitating his sound.
In the process of creating Symphonic Tone Poem for Brother Yusef (Strut), which documents a virtual concert that transpired at the Angel City Jazz Festival on the centennial birthday of the transformative woodwindist-percussionist-educator Yusef Lateef (1920-2013), Adam Rudolph and Bennie Maupin honored their mutual mentor by making music in his spirit but not his style. It’s a multilayered, complex record. Responding to a five-movement electro-acoustic sonic landscape created by Rudolph with his multiple-percussion palette, processing and keyboards, Maupin spontaneously orchestrated on bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, flute, wood flute and voice, evoking Lateef’s essence in his own argot. In turn, Rudolph cut, edited and processed Maupin’s tracks, integrating them into the final mix.
During a Zoom conversation in early June, Maupin, 82, and Rudolph, 66, discussed the rarefied simpatico of what Maupin describes as their “deep, profound, heart-to-heart” relationship. It dates to 1974, when Rudolph — then a 19-year-old hotshot percussionist who’d already played in Chicago with Fred Anderson and Muhal Richard Abrams and in Detroit with Charles Moore and Kenny Cox — came to New York to witness a recording session by Maupin. The older musician, then in his 30s, was already well-known for his tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and flute contributions to recordings with Miles Davis, the Mwandishi Sextet, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, and Marion Brown, which generated the iconic ECM album The Jewel in the Lotus.
In what ways did your respective relationships with Yusef Lateef impact your approach to this project?Bennie Maupin: Over the years, we’ve played together in different combinations. So none of this project was mentally challenging. It was all from the heart, based on being in the moment and doing whatever came through. Yusef’s gift to us was to encourage that way of approaching what we do creatively. When Adam spoke to me about doing this project, initially I was like, “Well, OK … .” Then I had to really think about it, because we never were in the same space at the same time. I listened once to what Adam sent me; the second time I heard it was in the recording studio. Once I started playing, I didn’t stop to do what’s normally done in the studio, where you go back, “Oh, I want to do that again.” We captured something, and now we’re talking about it. It’s all very surreal.
I was listening to Yusef Lateef in Detroit when I was 14 years old, man. I listened to him in many different situations there. He was the first person I saw play — and heard play — the oboe. No one else was using his variety of wooden flutes. I feel that Yusef Lateef is the godfather of “world music.” He brought something to the music that no one had ever brought. Because of him, I took a real interest in music from other parts of the world. He influenced my thinking in playing the oboe, playing the [Indian reed instrument] shehnai, playing the flute and wooden flutes — definitely in playing the saxophone. At one time, my sound was so influenced by him that I had to be more mindful to be my own voice. Many years later, I discovered that we’d studied with the same teacher in Detroit, Larry Teal, who taught saxophone from a classical perspective. He had a music school, and my high school band director suggested I take private lessons with him. If you wanted to get the saxophone right, you had to go to Larry Teal. Joe Henderson and Charles McPherson studied with him, and a slew of great classical saxophonists, like Donald Sinta.
Let’s talk more about Yusef Lateef’s activities in Detroit. Do you recall the first time you heard him, the environment in which you heard him, and how he sounded in relation to the scene in Detroit in the 1950s?BM: Detroit was a very popular city for a lot of reasons. Musicians came there and played in the various clubs. I was too young to be part of that. But I was able to hear Yusef live at a listening room that he’d co-founded with Kenny Burrell and Donald Byrd called the New World Stage. All these great musicians from Detroit played there — Barry Harris Milt Jackson, Doug Watkins, Sylvester Kyner [who was known as Sonny Red]. They all influenced me. The New World Stage was on the second floor of a furniture store. There was no alcohol, so I could go there. You became a member, you paid a dollar or two, and — especially in the winter months — you might be able to get a cookie and a cup of hot tea or cider. By the time the music was over, the buses were not running, so I had to walk home. There were many nights when the weather was severe — freezing cold, snowing, raining. But it didn’t matter to me because I had heard music and I was trying to remember what I heard, which was quite a lot. My high school years were tragic academically because I was out so much listening at the World Stage.
I frequented the Detroit public library almost daily, after my school classes, because they had the recordings and a listening room. If I went to the library at a certain time during the week, I’d see Yusef there, studying scores. I didn’t want to disturb him — but I positioned myself several times to kind of look over his shoulder to see what he was doing. That became my sanctuary. From Yusef, I realized you’ve got to be involved in what you’re doing on multiple levels.
You once remarked in an interview that Yusef Lateef played his gigs at night after finishing his shift at the factory, and that this level of commitment to his art and mission impressed you tremendously.BM: Well, he was very actively involved in the music, and he had a family to take care of. Yes, Yusef used to work in a factory, like a lot of musicians did in Detroit, to support his family, and then he played the gigs around Detroit. He was highly revered. He’d already played with Dizzy Gillespie’s band during the bebop era. But I didn’t know where he’d come from. All I knew is that I had access to him as a result of the New World Stage. For several years, Yusef played regularly in a place called Klein’s Show Bar. I couldn’t go there, because I wasn’t 21. But I could go to another place where he played after-hours — the West End Hotel, which was near the Rouge Lounge on the west side. It was operated by a man named Joseph Blair, a Black man who was an inventor, who worked on the periscope used in submarines. He and his wife opened a place where we could play after 2 a.m. until the sun came up.
Adam Rudolph: There’s recordings of Yusef’s group playing in 5/4 and 7/4 before “Take Five” came out. When he was working in the factory, he met somebody from Lebanon who gave him, I think, the arghul [Middle Eastern reed instrument]. He started making his own instruments. So he was opening up, studying and listening to music from all over, and also doing a deep study of Western European classical music — especially 20th-century music. He was one of the first jazz musicians to write for orchestral settings. He wrote for an ensemble that included oboe and bassoon. I asked him how he got into writing for and playing different instruments. He said, “Actually, I was bored with the codification of the instrumentation of the music at that time. I wanted to expand the palette of the music.”
BM: Yusef was always very kind. And then, thanks to Adam, we were able to record together near the end of Yusef’s life, in 2003, in a concert at the Electric Lodge, in Venice, California. That was my only opportunity to record with Yusef. One of my greatest memories is having a chance to talk with Yusef then, and share with him how much he’d influenced my sound — the beauty, the warmth, the color, whether he was playing the tenor, the flute or the oboe. The power of his heart was so profound, and he was always deeply rooted in the blues. Before he passed away, he called me. He sent me a score that he had composed for a woodwind quintet. At some point, I’m going to record it.
How did the Maupin-Rudolph relationship begin?AR: I first heard Bennie on Bitches Brew when I was 14. The Mwandishi Sextet was one of my favorite groups as a teenager; I wasn’t so aware of his work with Horace Silver and Lee Morgan. In 1974, a friend who worked at the Record Plant told me that Bennie and Herbie Hancock were recording there with Manfred Eicher. That was TheJewel in the Lotus, which is probably on my desert island [top] 10 records; it isn’t as well known as I feel it should be.
When I moved to Los Angeles, Bennie was one of the people I was hoping to connect with. I started playing in his band in 1980, and in several of his groups for the next few years. Then, in 1999, I started Go: Organic Orchestra, which I still have going. I was 44, and a lot of musicians around Los Angeles wanted to play with me and learn things I’d gleaned from my work with Don Cherry and Yusef. I thought this would be a good format for me to share with musicians from any background, whether they’re classically trained or improvisers or so-called jazz players or world music musicians. I invited Bennie, and he began to play with us regularly. I’d met Yusef in 1988. He heard our records, and in 2003 we created the piece for the Go: Organic Orchestra that Bennie mentioned. It’s documented on a record called In the Garden. Three generations of great woodwind players from Detroit were playing — Yusef, of course; then Bennie, 20 years younger; and Ralph Buzzy Jones, a musical associate of mine since I started playing in Detroit in 1973.
I developed my own system of conducting that’s related to a score which consists of what’s called “matrices and cosmograms.” Yusef was a motivator for that, and through his Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which is one of the most studied and important books for anybody involved in improvised music, I was motivated to do a book called Pure Rhythm, which addresses my system of thinking about rhythm, which I call “cyclic verticalism.” Yusef also motivated me to start my own record label. I’d been exposed to the idea of self-determination in Chicago and Detroit, and after Yusef launched his label, YAL, I started Meta Records. I’ve put out 30-plus albums, many co-released by Yusef and I.
BM: It’s amazing that Adam could be present at such an important moment for me — recording The Jewel in the Lotus in Los Angeles — and that many decades later, Adam would have a profound connection to Yusef. Nothing happens by chance. I believe it’s all karmically connected. Yusef inspired me through his playing and through his life condition. He was always clean. He was always healthy. He was always seeking. It’s remarkable that I witnessed the things that he did in Detroit before he moved to New York.
Adam, let’s talk more about the 1970s and your experiences in Detroit and Chicago before you went to Los Angeles.AR: As Bennie was describing, this is an oral tradition, transmitted from older musicians to the next generation. I might have been the last generation that really learned this music that way. I grew up in Hyde Park, on the South Side of Chicago. As a teenager, I played with Fred Anderson, Maulawi Nururdin, Billy Brimfield. Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill and Joseph Jarman were all my neighbors. I went to Oberlin in 1972, where I met [trumpeter] Charles Moore and [the writer] Herb Boyd, who were teaching there one or two days a week. Charles started inviting me to come to Detroit, and I spent a lot of time at the Strata Gallery with him and Kenny Cox and Danny Spencer and Charles Eubanks — all these incredible musicians. That environment was also my school. They actually pulled me on the bandstand on the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in 1973 — where, coincidentally, Yusef was playing with his group. At the same time, I went to the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland to hear Miles’ group with Mtume, where I also heard the Mwandishi sextet — I went every night. Bennie doesn’t remember me then, but I talked to him and Billy Hart.
Charles Moore was in Los Angeles. I came to visit, and ended up staying there. Don Cherry was living in L.A., and I started working with Don. Then I started working with Bennie — and I was like, “Well, I don’t need to go to New York.” I was also working with Charles Moore and Ralph Jones from Detroit, and Federico Ramos, the Uruguayan guitarist — we started a group called Eternal Wind that made three records. I started studying tabla really seriously then, and West African drumming. Bennie had an incredible group, with a lot of Chicago guys — Kenny Crutchfield and then Kenny Elliott were playing drums. I’d worked with Kenny Elliott, and I’d worked with both of them with Maulawi Nururdin back in Chicago when I was 16. Maulawi’s sister was married to Ahmad Jamal, and he actually also became an Ahmadiyya [Muslim] like Yusef; so he played oboe. Muhal and Roscoe Mitchell knew about Maulawi. One of my great moments was when I performed at Ravinia [in Illinois] with Yusef in the early ’90s, and I invited both Fred Anderson and Maulawi and they came to the concert.
Anyway, in 1988, I was living in Don Cherry’s loft in Long Island City, and Yusef somehow heard the Eternal Wind record, and invited us — along with Cecil McBee — to play a concert at Symphony Space, his first in New York since he returned from Nigeria, where he lived and did ethnomusicological research from 1981 to 1985. He published an incredible musicological study on the Sarewa Fulani flute, and he made some records there, including Yusef Lateef in Nigeria, which Orrin Keepnews released. It blew me away. He’d also released a record called Little Symphony  for which he won the first-ever New Age Grammy. I remember he called me and asked, “What’s New Age music?” I explained it to him. He said, “Well, that’s OK.” He didn’t like to be called a jazz musician. He called his music “autophysiopsychic,” which means coming from the mental and spiritual physical self.
How did your relationship with Yusef Lateef progress from that point?AR: I worked with Yusef for the next 25 years. We did many big collaborative projects, including the Go: Organic Orchestra with Bennie, but during the last 10 years we played primarily as a duet. At first we’d have a roadmap, which might be something inspirational from Yusef, like: “Imagine that we’re people who have been living on separate islands, and we’re two cultures encountering each other for the first time.” But the last several years, we didn’t have a score. We would just begin and listen, as I did with Bennie, and see where the music went. It’s all about language and it’s all about listening; Yusef and I developed a language together.
Over those 25 years, Yusef’s playing changed radically on all the instruments that he played, but he always sounded like himself. When you listen to Bennie on this recording, you recognize his voice, but he’s playing different than how he played on Jewel in the Lotus. It’s a different time, a different place, a different moment. You’re always cultivating what you do. Yusef told me, “With every record I do, I try to do something I’ve never done before.” All the records I made with him were done with different processes. I was living in California; he was in Massachusetts. Sometimes I’d fly there to play on the record, but sometimes he’d say, “I want you to record something.” It would be either with MIDI, with electronics or acoustic. I said, “Well, Brother Yusef, I don’t know what you’re going to do, so how can I know?” All he would say was, “vary your palette.” So I did whatever. Then he would add to that with electronics or his playing.
We did a project together called The World at Peace [recorded in 1995]. The Rockefeller Foundation commissioned Yusef to write this piece, and he invited me to write it with him. He suggested I write three compositions for half of the 12 instruments, then tell him only which instruments I had written for, the tempo and how many bars I wrote. Then, without seeing my pieces, he would compose for the other six musicians. At the same time, I was to follow the same process — composing without seeing his music. We wrote our music separately and we put it together and it was incredible. We took The World at Peace to Verona. Muhal had an AACM big band there with all the elders, Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill. So here I am playing with Yusef, and I’m hanging out on the bus with all the musicians who were my influences when I was a teenager. I heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago when I was 14 years old. Joseph told me that Yusef influenced the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s idea of picking up instruments other than your main axe. Muhal also told me that they regarded Yusef — a master improviser, writing for larger ensembles, writing symphonic works from the late ’50s all through the ’60s — as someone who broadened the orchestral palette.
One thing I’ve noticed about every musician I met from Detroit is that they were all studious, what I call research-and-development musicians. I think Yusef impacted this. He introduced everybody in Detroit to the work of Joseph Schillinger. I asked Yusef how he got into musics outside his own culture. He said, “I knew that if I wanted a long career in music, I needed to study everything I could about every kind of music in the world.” When I met him, I was already in that direction. I’d been studying tablas and African drumming. I’d lived in Ghana. But his remark reiterated the idea of work ethic and studiousness. Studiousness implies a kind of humility, too, because you have to be open to new ideas, do things that you might not be an expert at, and not be addicted to the idea of what you think virtuosity is. What does it mean when one of the greatest tenor players of the blues makes a bamboo flute that has one hole in it and plays that? It tells you that they understand that music is about something greater than music, that it’s about mystery and vibration and spiritual intention.
Yusef used to say, “The tradition is to sound like yourself.” When I hear Yusef, I think every note he plays, in a way, is a tribute to Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins — but he sounds completely like himself at the same time. Bennie mentions how profound an influence Yusef was on him, but actually, listening to Bennie now, although you hear his influences, he sounds 100 percent like himself. That’s the way you honor the tradition.