Yusef Lateef, “Purple Flower”

He was born William Emanuel Huddleston, but has been Yusef Lateef since 1950, if not his whole life. He recorded Eastern Sounds (from which Purple Flower is the seventh track) on Sept. 5, 1961. This nearly-50-year-old ballad is my favorite of all of them (saying something from someone who loves Ben Webster); it’s brooding and sad without being saccharine or maudlin or sounding like the backing track for a Mike Hammer movie. (The only other performer I know who can do dejected and in pain as well while avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of cheesy-lounge-act-jazz-sound is Bill Evans.)

It’s in the key of E for tenor sax, which can be strange to play– every note can sound right and yet wrong at the same time– and Purple Flower has enough accidentals to rival Thelonious Monk’s tunes and made key nearly irrelevant. This amounts to music like a whispered last word before a regretful death: no clear tonal center, where every note sounds like it’s wobbling on the edge of falling out of key, yet doesn’t, the instability of the sound lending its grieving character an ambiguous, doubting quality.

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