05 July 2008

Under The Radar: The Far East Suite

Duke Ellington
Far East Suite

There is perhaps no body of work more deserving of wider recognition than late-period Duke Ellington. While his remaining peers, with a few exceptions, had fallen into ambassadorial status, infrequently touring for nostalgic fans, Ellington and his writing partner Billy Strayhorn were producing some of their finest work. Alongside old hands like Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, the Ellington band toured the globe and produced some of the finest jazz ever put on record.

In an essay written for Slate a few years ago, Stanley Crouch rightly noted, "Ellington's late work is largely a secret treasure." Challenging the conventional wisdom that Ellington reached his peak in the early 1940s, Crouch argues that Ellington "achieved a remarkable range and authority," producing an array of sophisticated and challenging works.

Of Ellington's later work, The Far East Suite stands as a monument to his genius and inventiveness. Recorded in 1966, the album consists of nine tunes written in reaction to Ellington's 1963 tour of the Middle East and Far East sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Ellington and Strayhorn expanded upon their four-movement suite Impressions of the Far East, writing nine tunes intended as snapshot's of Ellington and Strayhorn's experiences in Asia, combined with their own familiar language of jazz and the blues.

Whereas other works by jazz artists signifying on Asian themes used Asian forms explicitly as a jumping-off point for jazz explorations (think John Coltrane's A Love Supreme or, more recently, Kenny Garrett's Beyond the Wall), Ellington and Strayhorn employ their own style to relate an impression of Asia as seen through their eyes. The opening track, "Tourist Point of View," emphasizes this perspective, and alludes to the bustle of the growing urban areas of South Asia. The song opens with a cacauphony of cluster chords in the brass, connoting a disoriented feel with much going on in the background. This leads to an series of exotic melodies in the reeds, led by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and revealing an elegance and beauty to the at-first new confusing landscape. Ellington changes gears midway through, inserting a screaming solo by the inimitable trumpeter Cat Anderson to bring the newness of the scene back to the forefront. The tune closes with Gonsalves and bassist John Lamb calmly riffing on his earlier melody over the resurgent cluster chord.

The highlight of the album is the Johnny Hodges feature "Isfahan." Hodges plays the alto with characteristic warmth and soulfulness. Listen to the way he bends pitches and accents his triplets; he plays a ballad the way it should be played. This recording of Hodges is probably the best example of his distinctive style on record, both because of the quality of Hodges' playing and the fidelity of the recording.

Other highlights of the record include "Mount Harissa," a bluesy homage to the Lebanese pilgrimage site, and "Amad," in which trombonist Lawrence Brown evokes the Muslim call to prayer using the familiar language of the blues augmented with flatted seconds. Recorded just a year before the death of arranger Billy Strayhorn, The Far East Suite is significant also because it represents one of the final collaborations between Ellington and Strayhorn, the most prolific creative duo of the twentieth century. Even in the winter of their years, the two were still more than capable of producing sophisticated music which built on their past foundations with new and exciting foils, keeping the sound of surprise lively and rewarding.

Track Listing: Tourist Point of View; Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah); Isfahan; Depk; Mount Harissa; Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues); Agra; Amad; Ad Lib on Nippon
Personnel: Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, reeds; Cat Anderson, Mercer Ellington, Herbie Jones, Cootie Williams, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, Chuck Connors, Buster Cooper, trombone; Duke Ellington, piano; John Lamb, bass; Rufus "Speedy" Jones, drums

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