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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

The Far East Suite

The Far East Suite was recorded in December of 1966: nine tracks, refined and re-worked over a lengthy period. The resulting album is regarded as one of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's masterpieces. It was also their final collaboration as Strayhorn was very ill with cancer when it was recorded and died about five months later. The album radiated excitement and discovery: we can hear it in the themes, motifs, form, harmonic progressions and ideas that respond to the ‘mystery’ of life in the East.

The opening tune, Ellington’s Tourist Point of View, conveys the sense of wonder at arriving in the East after landing in Syria. It is an atmospheric piece written for tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. Quite extraordinary.

Strayhorn’s Bluebird of Delhi (originally titled Mynah) is a tribute to a mynah bird that often visited his room while the band was in India. Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet evokes the sound and spirit of the bird, with Hamilton mimicking the ‘pretty lick’ (in Ellington’s words) that the bird used to sing. According to Duke, the bird never answered Billy’s banter until they were leaving, and ‘then it sounded off the low raspberry you hear at the end of the number.’

Isfahan was based on an earlier Strayhorn work called Elf, which was first performed in 1963. Named after Persia’s (now Iran) former capital, it was inspired by what Ellington called ‘a city of poetic beauty.’

Isfahan is probably the best-known track on the record, in no small part due to Johnny Hodges’s gorgeous alto sax performance. Hodges playing is simply poetry.

Ellington’s Depk was inspired by a children’s dance in Amman, Jordan, adding playfulness and a child’s sense of hope and optimism to the suite. Ellington said the track ‘involved a dozen boys and girls and was marked by a little kick on the sixth beat.’

Ellington’s Mount Harissa, originally known as Nob Hill, takes its name from a famous hilltop in Lebanon. It’s a distinctly evocative piece, which develops the themes of the suite focussing on the interaction between Ellington and Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax)

Duke’s Blue Pepper is the funkiest piece on the album, and as Stanley Dance remarks in the liner notes, ‘speaks of the universality of the blues.’ The playing of Hodges and Cat Anderson (trumpet) is edge of the seat stuff. The track has a ‘misplaced’ R&B feel to it.

Strayhorn’s Agra is home to the world-famous Taj Mahal. To be honest I don’t hear the Indian influence. What I do hear is the coolest, most sublime baritone sax playing of Harry Carney, for whom it was written.

Ellington’s Amad works to convey the overall mystery of the region. Jazz critic Stanley Dance highlighted Lawrence Brown’s trombone performance, which is no doubt meant to evoke an Islamic ‘call to prayer.’ Not so sure about this but a wonderful performance.

Finally, Ad Lib on Nippon was composed by Ellington and tenor sax/clarinettist Jimmy Hamilton after the 1964 visit to Japan. This movement consists of four sections: Fugi, Igoo, Nagoya, and Tokyo. It is a terrific signing-off and fittingly showcases the piano playing of the Duke himself.

‘The Far East Suite is a landmark work. Aside from its beauty, creativity, originality, and cohesiveness - despite the diverse nature of the pieces-it stands out in many ways. As critics have noted, the Eastern feel is achieved with standard big band instrumentation familiar to the Ellington canon - they did not introduce Eastern instruments to evoke the sounds of the region more easily as many others in various genres of music have done. Instead, uses of themes, motifs, form, and vamps familiar to various Asian music traditions were subtly incorporated to create the unique sound palette. The individual musicians were used in the same way: Hamilton’s clarinet represents the mynah bird, Hodges’s alto evokes the poetic beauty of Isfahan, Gonsalves’s tenor builds on Ellington’s feelings about Mount Harissa, and Carney’s baritone conveys the majesty of the Taj Mahal and its history.

Jazz Lines Publications

The Far East Suite is a collective work of genius and an absolute joy to listen to. And a worthy legacy of the great Billy Strayhorn.

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