Saturday's concert by jazz innovator Yusef Lateef figures to be a particularly memorable evening. There's the simple fact that Lateef is here at all: Now 88, the influential and idiosyncratic saxophonist/composer doesn't recall ever performing in Minnesota.
Second, Lateef will begin in what may be the most intimate of all musical formats -- improvised duets. These provide the yin as well as the yang of each partner's muse, revealing their ability to listen and communicate as they innovate.
Third, the show includes the first musical meeting between Lateef and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, 69, co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and a polestar of avant-garde jazz.
"This is part of a continuum that looks over our music," says Douglas Ewart, the Twin Cities musician who will play a variety of percussion and wind instruments in Saturday's show, first in duets with Mitchell, and then in a quartet set. "Pioneers give birth to new pioneers and combine in a continuum of the collaborative spirit. It is a very powerful thing."
Back in the 1960s, Ewart felt that continuum at work via Lateef's influence on Chicago's now-legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Having made his mark with Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and his own groups, Lateef began exploring the culture and music of Asia, Africa and Arabia, delved into spoken-word collaborations and started playing homemade wind and percussion instruments and "found objects."
All of these elements, plus Lateef's academic rigor and personal mien -- he is a college educator, novelist, poet, record label proprietor, symphonic composer and longtime follower of the Muslim faith -- had an impact on Ewart, Mitchell and other AACM members.
It was Ewart who instigated Saturday's concert by contacting percussionist Adam Rudolph, Lateef's friend and frequent collaborator. Rudolph and Lateef will play first, followed by Ewart and Mitchell, then all four musicians will share the stage.
From disciples to friends
The duet partners each enjoy a special bond -- mentor- disciple relationships that have evolved into deep friendship and musical synergy.
"Yusef and I have played together since 1988 and during that time have developed a deep and unique language together," Rudolph said by phone from New York. Indeed, the two have created names, such as "dak- pa," for some of their shared concepts. They might interact on frame drum and tenor sax for one song, Moroccan percussion and alto flute the next, piano and oboe after that.
"All those things are really there to serve the spirit of the moment and communicate heartfelt thoughts," Rudolph said. "When you get somebody like Yusef, who has that many decades of life experience and musical knowledge combined with a childlike willingness to be experimental, great art can happen."
Speaking by phone from his western Massachusetts home, Lateef echoed the admiration: "No matter how 'free' or spontaneous the music is, a form is created. Even with the field hollers back in slave time, there was a caller and a responder. Well, you could say that Adam and I have picked a lot of cotton together. He hears me and encourages me to move to a new area, like what [drummer] Elvin Jones did with John Coltrane."
Mitchell and Ewart enjoy a similar dynamic. "Roscoe was one of my early teachers," Ewart said. "There is a special alliance because we lived in the same house back in Chicago and formally and informally rehearsed together. It has evolved to where we are now great friends."
Reached by phone, Mitchell noted that "Douglas and I go back a long way. My experience with this music is you are better off over the long haul doing things with people you have known a long time."
What happens when these four musicians converge is less predictable but enormously enticing.
"I have never played with either of the two gentlemen," Lateef said of Mitchell and Ewart, "but Adam tells me they are in tune with our concepts, so I'm very much looking forward to it."
Appropriately, Ewart offers a cross-cultural lesson to suggest how the evening might unfold: "There is a Japanese philosophy called ma that says the page is full until you put a mark on it. In that same sense, the space is full until we start playing. Roscoe will utilize that space in his way, and I'll utilize it in my way as we come together. The same will happen with the four of us. Considering the people who will be playing, I expect some great moments."