Cross-cultural explorations of music usually turn up going one of two routes: the path of musical expansion/discovery that sometimes detours down the lane of genius or the bushy, thorny and (hopefully) killer troll-infested path of gross oversimplification of a culture and tepid romanticization of said culture. Thankfully, Lateef has clearly carefully studied, experimented with and ultimately trained himself in what he wishes to incorporate into the music he would eventually produce. And while I may be wrong with this, Lateef seems to not say "this music is the culture." Instead, he seems to be saying "maybe our imaginations are a bit too limited, cat. Maybe just maybe we can soak in some influences and make it ours." This is what I really appreciate about this beautiful album. It's all about taking jazz and exploring its musical capabilities by any means possible--even if that means incorporating some instruments and influences that the average jazzman wouldn't even dream about touching.
These words are almost immediately proven when one pops this glorious CD in and listen to the first track, "The Plum Blossom." The name alone fills my head with all kinds of beautiful imagery. The listener is introduced to this album with a quiet, peaceful riff of an Indian instrument called the "rahab." (Wikipedia it.) And if that wasn't enough, the listener is then treated to a subdued yet beautiful melody played by a Chinese instrument called the "xun." (Once again, Wikipedia it.) To remind us that this is jazz, it seems, a careful and meticulous piano comes into the mix and interplays with the xun in a way that seems that these two instruments hail from one musical tradition. +1 for Sir Lateef.
Afterwards, we're treated to some traditional jazz/blues with "Blues For the Orient." I do not believe that this song utilizes any eastern instruments but the influence does some out in the use of the chord changes (I'm nowhere near technically proficient so I like to shy away from saying such things.) and the careful use of the Lateef's oboe in this song. Perhaps Lateef plays on/with our romantizations of the East and tortures us by dipping us into the cauldron of the exotic but yanks us out of this ecstasy and tosses us, cold and naked, back into the world of Americana.
Four standard jazz pieces make their way into the mix but don't seem to be out of place at all. The two livelier of the pieces--Chinq Miau and Snafu--are both introduced by extremely hip bass lines. The drums soon come in to complete the rhythm section and then we're treated to an even greater surprise: Lateef plays the saxophone! His playing on these songs goes to show that while he doesn't embrace the relentless torrent of soul that constitutes Coltrane's (another fellow that began to experiment with Eastern music around this time) aesthetic, he was still able to roll with the saxophone giants in jazz at the time. Though, in keeping with the aesthetic of this album, he doesn't let all out which he shows he obviously can do. The two quieter jazz standards of the album--"Don't Blame Me" and "Purple Flower"--make great additions that simultaneously contradict and accentuate their more exotic counterparts.
The two greatest surprises on the album, however, are the inclusion of two renditions of songs scored by the great film composer Alex North. Sure, film music may be slightly detached from the theme of the album but why the hell not, right? The slightly less impressive of these two inclusions, "Love Theme from The Robe," is still very tender (as a love theme should be, right?) and exhibits form amazing flute playing from Lateef. They dance all over the main theme of the original song yet still remain close enough to it for the melody to be recognizable. The other love theme, from Kubrick's Spartacus, is an amazingly beautiful inclusion on this record and probably even trumps a lot of the Eastern-influenced pieces on the album for many people. For the most part, the players stay fairly close to the main melody and there's nothing wrong with that at all: the melody is absolutely genius and I'd see no reason wander away from it. Of particular interest is the piano solo in the middle of the song, which has to be one of the best improvisational performances I've heard in quite a while. (Though, admittedly, I've been sort of out of the loop in terms of jazz for a while.)
Finally, the rahab returns for the album's final cut, "The Three Faces of Balal." For a mere two minutes, the rahab, piano and mystical flute dance with one another and ends the album in such a sparse, delicate way as it began. Sometimes, you can't help but forget that tons of cultural and artistic influences have been packed into this album to create something completely new. And on top of that, it didn't have to be thrown under the label of "postmodernism" or had to have been beaten in your head in a Tantantinoesque manner. You're just supposed to take it for what it is and relax.
Definitely a winner.