Ninety years old this month, Yusef Lateef was greeted with reverent applause Friday at Grace Cathedral, where close to a full house awaited this master of jazz and world-spanning sounds. As the applause echoed through the cathedral, Lateef began to play, while strolling around the nave, encircling the audience with music, which floated up and through the void.
Pretty soon, the place was exceptionally quiet, except for the very quiet music: Lateef playing a small flute, something like a penny whistle, and Adam Rudolph, his percussionist, playing another flute and making soft whooshes with a length of plastic tubing, which he whirled while walking. They were populating the big sacred space with natural sounds: breath and wind, moans and night sounds, as if desert crickets were speaking through the flutes.
Going back to Duke Ellington's famous sacred concert with his orchestra at Grace in 1965, the cathedral atop Nob Hill has hosted much spiritualized jazz. Since the 1980s, SFJAZZ -- which presented Lateef as part of the ongoing San Francisco Jazz Festival -- has brought many preeminent instrumentalists to Grace for solo or duo concerts. Headliners have ranged from Anthony Braxton to Pharoah Sanders and Joshua Redman.
So it was only a matter of time before Lateef appeared at the cathedral. Along with John Coltrane, Don Cherry (who played at Grace some two decades ago) and a few others, he is a progenitor of jazz as a sacred language, expanding
to embrace the folk and sacred musical traditions of the world. Even before the release of his popular "Eastern Sounds" LP in 1961, Lateef was laying claim to this territory, and, Friday at Grace, he filled the Episcopalian cathedral with Eastern sounds and more.