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Beauty to the Higher Power

Photo by Kevin Ramos

You never heard anything much like Go: Organic Orchestra. It’s different in concept, different in sound. The concept comes from Adam Rudolph, a Chicago percussionist who’s lived in our region for close to 25 years. And the sound . . . it wafts you through an abstract Africa outside of time and terrain.

“It was like a spaceship,” says Rudolph, exhausted, fevered and awestruck in the wake of an Organic Orchestra performance he conducted at Venice’s Electric Lodge on the last day of February. The afterimages stick: 21 musicians (five percussionists, a violist and 15 woodwind players) arranged in a crescent to face Rudolph, who’s garbed in a North African tunic and striding around the open space, dashing now and then back to his congas, intermittently throwing up strange hand gestures. He waves up and down, makes fists, summons a chord block by raising however many fingers, hushes his lips for a diminuendo, points a digit to indicate a series of soloists. He’s improvising, and so is the orchestra, within a wide range of chordal and rhythmic structures that have been outlined in advance and coded out on music stands. The instant compositions ooze with dissonantly massed flutes, swell and fade, or cook like crazy. Butch Morris has been known to improvise with a jazz orchestra, but this has a more, uh, organic feel.

Younger adventurers in the ensemble include Chris Heenan on bass clarinet, Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon, Harris Eisenstadt on drums. Also present are somewhat older players, such as drummer Alex Cline, bansuri player David Philipson, and flutists Ellen Burr and Emily Hay. Windman Ralph Jones points out that three generations of Detroit jazz adepts are onboard: himself, windman Bennie Maupin and windman Yusef Lateef.

One of Rudolph’s primary mentors, Dr. Lateef, now 83, is a living link to America’s music history, but no relic. Always he has evolved, manifesting his own expressions in blues, swing, bop, hard bop, avant-garde, world, electronic and even symphonic music, and making his most challenging contributions late in life. He has taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for some years, and doesn’t travel too much anymore, so the sight of him makes an impression. Bundled up in burnoose, scarf and skullcap, he presents concise, authoritative statements: lonesome opening hoots on ocarina, resonant blurts on a double-reed gourd instrument, cries of painful truth on tenor. The orchestra is the writhing universe, with Dr. Lateef’s instrumental lines the Genesis narration: And darkness was on the face of the deep.

The Go: Organic Orchestra’s third album, In the Garden, an exciting and maybe revolutionary two-disc document of the performances from early this year, is now available as a collaborative release on the YAL and Meta labels of its two principal creators. So here falls a good opportunity to relate some of the thoughts Dr. Lateef (slow and patient) and Mr. Rudolph (quietly urgent) shared in Rudolph’s Venice living room the day after the first concert this year.

L.A. WEEKLY: How did it feel?

DR. YUSEF LATEEF: I enjoyed it immensely, playing in a context where so many things inspire me. I felt that I was surrounded by something very related to my own aesthetic.

ADAM RUDOLPH: Yusef and I met in 1988, and he’s opened up many, many doors for me, in terms of how to look at things in fresh ways. Since he’s had such a profound influence on my compositional concepts, even though I have my own aesthetic, I think that he automatically felt comfortable. And in the past I’ve always written all the music, but this occasion was a collaboration — Yusef sent some music ahead.

What were the motivations for the Organic Orchestra?

RUDOLPH: This music is oral tradition. I wanted to connect with more musicians and find out who was here, and what I discovered was that it’s my turn to be passing on things that I’ve learned. So there’s a lot of these younger musicians from varied backgrounds, and it’s been an opportunity for me to develop a mentoring and also learning relationship with them. I think a lot of them were really happy to be involved in the Organic Orchestra, because they’re getting a chance to expand their ideas of how to approach music, and I know a lot of them have taken the ideas and carried them out into their own ensembles.

And what are some of the principles behind it?

RUDOLPH: Low sounds carry more overtones, so high is embedded in low, in a way that low is not embedded in high. Like a drum especially, you strike it and there are very complex overtones — that’s what gives it its character and its richness. So inside of that are all the other tones. But it’s also tension and release — so you control the low, and that controls the motion. Low to high is tension, and high to low is release. In Middle Eastern music they have a concept called usala, and that’s how they structure their rhythm. Also, Yusef and I were talking about Michio Kaku, the theoretical physicist — he wrote this book Hyperspace. He postulated 11 dimensions that could exist, and as you get into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler. So rather than thinking about a stylistic milieu, we look at music in the higher dimensions — it becomes simpler and simpler.

What has made you evolve?

LATEEF: It was my nature.

Who were examples to you?

LATEEF: Uptown from where I lived as a youth was Lucky Thompson. He wanted a saxophone, but he couldn’t afford one. So he got a broomstick and carved notches on it, and practiced on the broomstick until he got a saxophone. John Coltrane, every time he’d come to Detroit, we would get together and study. And he was always looking for what he didn’t know. He always asked me, “What have you been following?” And I asked him the same question. He said, “I found the secondary dominants” [the fifth degree above a note other than the tonic], which were in Europe years ago, but no one had used them in improvisational music, and John told me he knew his secondary dominants backwards.

What moved you away from the blues and toward avant-garde and classical music?

LATEEF: I think the basis of it is the moments that I spent sitting in the library in Detroit, and taking classes at Wayne State University in classical music, finding out what it involves — Mozart, Beethoven, and the Russian composers, Borodin et cetera. And I realized that to be a musician, there’s much ter-

ritory to look into. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies — I’d like to write nine, too. I’ve written one symphony, I’ve got eight

more to go.

Both of you have spent considerable time in Africa. How has that changed your attitude?

LATEEF: It’s more compassionate. You see somebody who needs help, you got to help.

What attracted you to Islam?

LATEEF: There was a mosque in Chicago, and I went and got some literature. It said through prayer and deeds one’s natural tendencies are directed to the proper channels. The only virtue is in your actions — that’s what Islam teaches. And it spoke about respect of parents and of neighbors, and I already believed those things from my Christian upbringing. I joined Dizzy Gillespie in Chicago, and when we got to New York, a mosque was there, near Art Blakey’s house. I started going to the meetings, and I said, “I better try this.” I thought I ought to change my name, and the reason I did was because Lateef means gentle and amiable, and Yusef means Joseph after the prophet Joseph. And Abdul Lateef means a servant of the gentle and amiable, a servant of God — that’s one of God’s attributes, gentle and amiable. And I said, “That’s something for me to try to live up to.”

Is nature an inspiration?

LATEEF: Nature is a prototype for painters, for musicians, for writers. We didn’t create that, it’s beyond us. We observe it, and I think when we reflect on nature, it gives us ideas how to synthesize whatever we’re doing. It’s a great teacher. It’s reflections of the higher power. And we’re part of nature ourselves. This is something I believe: When we observe something that’s beautiful, it’s not the thing that creates the beauty. The force that

created that beauty is really what’s attracting us. So that means a thing of beauty comes in pairs. There’s the thing itself, and there’s the thing that makes it.

RUDOLPH: That’s why I feel music is about something greater than music itself. Music is just a medium through which something is passing. It’s all ultimately in service of something else.