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JAZZ REVIEW : Yusef Lateef Work Premiered at CalArts

Despite his antipathy toward jazz, saxophonist-composer Yusef Lateef, in the course of his world premiere presentation Sunday night at CalArts in Valencia, offered ample proof that the music does, in fact, provide the very basis of his work.

Granted, “Double Concerto,” composed with percussionist Adam Rudolph, was not by any stretch of the imagination a jazz piece, but at its heart and soul were the world-music elements that have contributed to the creation of jazz.

The piece, the final offering of CalArts’ 13th Contemporary Music Festival, was an ambitious composition that borrowed heavily from a multitude of African traditions while maintaining a reliance on improvisation. At the fore of the improvised sessions was Lateef, playing mostly tenor saxophone but providing scintillating work on the flute and a handful of African folk instruments.

And try as he mightn’t, the piece swung from beginning to end.

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Lateef and Rudolph, the latter a much-heralded player, scholar and faculty member of CalArts, wrote the piece for a chamber group of 17 players. The instrumentation was not constant throughout the piece, but variously featured such an array of instruments so odd that the bassoon seemed a rather mundane inclusion. Nevertheless, the craftsmanlike combination of saxophones and ewe drums, guitars and pakhawaj, synthesizer and kendang was both appealing and effective.

Not so effective was the structure of “Double Concerto.” Borrowing from the classical definition of the term, the piece was in three distinct sections. But there was little thematic material to tie the three movements together and each movement was further subdivided into multiple other sections. What resulted, to a certain degree, was a cut-and-paste job that could have benefited from better transitions.

This vignette approach did, however, highlight and make more distinct the musical ideas of the composers. It was almost as if each idea in the hourlong composition was deserving of, if not begging for, further exploration and development.

Lateef and Rudolph’s debut was an auspicious one nonetheless. With time and the global community’s growing acceptance and acknowledgement of composers from the jazz idiom, they might be afforded the opportunities to write pieces that don’t have to live as compendiums of a musical heritage.


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