Youseff Yancy–Pioneer of Electronic Jazz
My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
This episode of the podcast celebrates the electronic jazz of Youseff Yancy. Yancy is a trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and expert Thereminist. Mr. Yancy was born in New Orleans and By the early 1970s, he was closely associated with the free scene as a trumpet player, even promoting his own brand of amplified trumpet. Mr. Yancy picked up a Theremin sometime in the early 1970s and added this to his musical skills. He extended his know-how with the amplified trumpet to modify the sounds of other instruments electronically. When listening to his recordings, you will often hear the Theremin being played with vibrant echo and his trumpet colored with grumbling distortion. The Theremin model Yancy uses was made by Maestro and designed by Bob Moog. It was first sold in 1972, which seems to be about the time that Yancy acquired one.
Youseff Yancy is best known as a session musician, not a band leader. Although his performances were prolific, especially while working in the band of his friend Byard Lancaster in the late-1970s, his appearances on record are pretty rare. He is often credited with contributing the Theremin, trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion, and other electronic devices. These other electronic devices included such things as the echoplex, fuzz pedals, and other devices to modify the sounds of amplified jazz instruments.
I’ve pulled several recordings from my archive that highlight the electronic side of Mr. Yancy’s music.
I’m dividing this episode into two halves roughly in chronological order. This episode takes us up to about 1980. In the next episode we’ll listen to Mr. Yancy’s music from about 1980 to 2000.
Before beginning the set of Youseff Yancy’s recordings, I want to mention two other tracks that provide context for how the Theremin was being in jazz at the time. First is Yusef Lateef’s “Sound Wave” from 1966. Lateef was the sax and flute player who grew up in Detroit. Then we'll hear the jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, also from Detroit, and her recording of “Soul Vibrations” from 1968. I have not been able to discover who the Thereminist was on this track and the record doesn’t have any credits given. In each case, I think you will hear that the player was searching to play melodic lines with the instrument. I would keep these recordings in mind before we hear the spacious, less-tethered sound of Mr. Yancy’s Theremin playing that will follow.
Moving on to the recordings of Youseff Yancy.
The first two tracks are from Sunny Murray’s Untouchable Factor. For “New York Maze,” which is over 18 minutes long, you get to hear the distinctive trumpet playing and Theremin of Yancy. This music comprises a wall of sound, continuously evolving through changes in the textures of the soloists. It wraps up with everyone soloing at once, including Yancy on Theremin. This is the characteristic sound of Mr. Yancy’s Theremin: freely sliding tones hovering around the harmonic center of the action.
On the next track, “Applebluff,” we get to hear Yancy and his electrified trumpet. Distorted, ring modulated, echoplexed, as Yancy plays variations on a simple six-note theme. This track is all Yancy plus percussion. The distortion is what I would think of as beautiful, measured, expressive.
Next we will hear two amazing tracks from the album “Spihumonesty” led by the late Muhal Richard Abrams. This ensemble featured George Lewis on trombone, sousaphone, and synthesizer, Jay Clayton on vocals, and Roscoe Mitchell on sax and flute. Abrams played piano and synthesizer. Yancy played the Theremin. The title track is essentially a showcase for vocalist Jay Clayton. Members of the ensemble create various accompaniment to a series of vocal utterances. George Lewis provides some steady synth pulsations. Yancy plays Theremin beginning late in the track just after the 5-minute mark. He and Clayton try playing the same notes for a spell, creating an interesting heterodying effect caused by sympathetic vibrations slightly out of phase.
That track is followed by “Inneroutersight” and contrast sharply with the clear articulation of notes in Spihumonesty. This is largely a droning piece, bubbling along like an ocean of electronic sound. Swimming in this sound is Yancy’s Theremin, gliding around, providing accents and lively expression to the music that is otherwise flatlining.
Next is, “Blue Nature” from an album by Byard Lancaster. Recorded in New York in 1979, this is a multi-tracked, solo performance by Yancy on his own composition. It includes one track of straight trumpet, at least one track of electronically modified trumpet, and another track of Theremin. On the liner notes, Lancaster acknowledges “the spiritual and education guidance from Youseff Yancy and family.”
We’ll close this episode with a live track called “Where We Are” by the Garrett List A-1 Art Band, more of which we will hear next time from an album they released in 1972. But the unit is together for this earlier performance at the Kitchen in New York. What you’ll hear is a 4-minute improvised introduction where each member of the ensemble interacts with Yancy’s Theremin, leading into a version of the song “Fly Hollywood.”
1. Yuseff Lateef, “Sound Wave” from A Flat, G Flat And C (1966 Impulse!). Tenor Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, Flute, Oboe, Theremin, Yusef Lateef; Bass, Reggie Workman; Drums, Roy Brooks; Piano, Hugh Lawson. 4:00.
2. Dorothy Ashby, “Soul Vibrations” from Afro-Harping (1968 Cadet). Harp, Dorothy Ashby. No other credits are given. Unknown Theremin player. 3:19.
3. Sunny Murray’s Untouchable Factor, “New York Maze” from Apple Cores (1978 Philly Jazz). Composed by Sunny Murray; Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Theremin and Various Electro-acoustical Sound Manipulating Devices, Youseff Yancy; Alto Saxophone, Arthur Blythe; Baritone Saxophone, Hamiet Bluiett; Bass, Fred Hopkins; Guitar, Monnette Sudler. 18:34.
4. Sunny Murray’s Untouchable Factor, “Applebluff” from Apple Cores (1978 Philly Jazz). Composed by Sunny Murray; Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Theremin and Various Electro-acoustical Sound Manipulating Devices, Youseff Yancy; Drums, Sonny Brown; Flutes], Whistles, Percussion, Abdul Zahir Batin. 9:10.
5. Muhal Richard Abrams, “Spihumonesty” (1980 Black Saint). Composer, Piano, Synthesizer, Muhal Richard Abrams; Theremin – Yousef Yancey; Trombone, Sousaphone, Synthesizer, George Lewis; Voice, Jay Clayton; Alto Saxophone, Flute, Roscoe Mitchell; Bass, Leonard Jones; Piano, Electric Piano, Organ, Amina Myers. 6:50.
6. Muhal Richard Abrams, “Inneroutersight” from Spihumonesty” (1980 Black Saint). Composer, Piano, Synthesizer, Muhal Richard Abrams; Theremin – Yousef Yancey; Trombone, Sousaphone, Synthesizer, George Lewis; Voice, Jay Clayton; Alto Saxophone, Flute, Roscoe Mitchell; Bass, Leonard Jones; Piano, Electric Piano, Organ, Amina Myers. 7:54.
7. Byard Lancaster, “Blue Nature” from, Documentation The End of a Decade (1980 Bellows). Theremin and trumpet, Youseff Yancy. Recorded in New York in 1979, this is a multi-tracked, solo performance by Yancy on his own composition. One track of straight trumpet, at least one track of electronically modified trumpet, and another track of Theremin. On the liner notes, “B. Lancaster acknowledges the spiritual and education guidance from Youseff Yancy and family.” 2:43.
8. Garrett List and the A-1 Art Band, “Where We Are” from Various – From The Kitchen Archives - New Music New York 1979 (2004 Orange Mountain Music). Piano, Trombone, Garrett List; Theremin, Trumpet, Youseff Yancy; Soprano Saxophone, Byard Lancaster; Voice, Genie Sherman. Recorded live at The Kitchen, New York City. 8:38.
Opening background music: Garrett List / A-1 Band, “Passions of Miles” from Fire & Ice (1982 Lovely Music). Composed by, Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Theremin, Electronics, Youseff Yancy; Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Flute, Piccolo Flute, Byard Lancaster; Drums, Percussion, Ronald Shannon Jackson; Trombone, Piano, Vocals, Garrett List; Vocals, Genie Sherman. 5:54.
Second background track: Better Daze, “Heavenly Sweetness” from First Flight E.P. (1995 Ubiquity). Acid jazz remix of “Sweetness,” a song that originated on the 1980 album by Byard Lancaster featuring Youseff Yancy and vocalist Joan Hansom. 5:28.