To begin with, it shouldn't be the Far East Suite at all. The 1963 State Department tour that this music commemorates brought Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Egypt, India, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Persia (now Iran), and Turkey -- a glorious itinerary of the Near and Middle East, but not a truly Far Eastern city in the lot. Only one of the Suite's nine sections makes programmatic reference to Japan or China, and that one, "Ad Lib on Nippon," was inspired by the following year's journey to Japan.
No matter. Thanks to the artistic license that others have to earn (but that Ellington seems to have been born with), the Far East Suite it was.
Despite his fanciful emendation of the world map, though, Ellington's sense of musical geography proved stunningly accurate. Has anyone ever captured a locale so completely -- with music so clearly tethered to the place in question -- and yet remained so much himself? Each segment of the Far East Suite is typically, unmistakably Ellington, using colors, rhythms, melodic contours he had pioneered nearly four decades earlier, buoyed by the familiar, barely reined energy of his close-knit orchestra. Yet at the same time, each segment stands as a brilliant example of musical journalism, conveying the scene and story, the fascinating flavors and unfamiliar aromas, through the sensations of a terrific reporter.
Not a daily-dispatch reporter, mind you (although Ellington did come up with an enviably quotable assessment of the military coup that coincided with the band's stay in Baghdad -- "Those cats were swinging, man!" he told newsmen in Beirut a few days later). Rather, Ellington played the essayist, taking in, as he always did, all the sights and sounds available, with the intention of digesting his experiences and translating them into music at some unspecified date. He expressed no interest in copying down this scale or annotating that unusual rhythm: "It's more valuable to have absorbed while there," he wrote in Musical Journal (March 1964). "You let it roll around, undergo a chemical change, and then seep out on paper in the form that will suit the musicians who are going to play it."
Ellington was not alone in undergoing this process of creative alchemy: the writing of the entire Far East Suite, with the exception of "Ad Lib on Nippon," is co-credited to the Maestro and Billy Strayhorn, who had been his musical blood-brother for 25 years at the time the Suite was composed. (Strayhorn, who occasionally played piano in Ellington's place, had a busier trip that expected. Where Ellington's curiosity could match the novelty of the Orient, his immune system could not, and he had to miss several concerts.) The same alchemy was at work on key members of the band, too: during the three years between the Mideast tour and this recording, the main soloists -- Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, and Jimmy Hamilton -- seemed to have distilled their memories of the tour. Throughout this album, they eschew the comfortable musical phrases gathered during a professional lifetime in favor of recapturing the unique experiences that marked their sojourn.
Hodges, of course, had well established his importance in the music of Ellington and especially Strayhorn, whose sensuous ballads so movingly exploited his heavy-lidded sound. And by the time of this recording, Gonsalves was very much the primary soloist for the Ellington orchestra. But in some ways, the Far East Suite belongs most to Jimmy Hamilton, the second tenor saxist and clarinet specialist who joined Ellington in 1942 and left the band a year and a half after the Suite was recorded. Ellington had always liked the clarinet as an exotic tonal color, dating back to the days of his Jungle Orchestra; writing his most evocative music since then, he naturally turned to the instrument's reedy mystery (as well as the serpentine harmonies lurking within the clarinet duo of Hamilton and Russell Procope). Two of the suite's movements are designed around Hamilton as the featured soloist, and he remains near the spotlight on the others. Leading the ensemble passages on such difficult tunes as "Depk" and "Amad," Hamilton becomes, by dint of the instrument he played and his own musicality, the straw boss for the Suite.
This music also brought the band's new drummer, Rufus "Speedy" Jones, to the forefront; by happy accident, his first recording with the band required plenty of the mysterious, exotic rhythmic propulsion that was in fact his forte. (Ellington himself, in his autobiographical Music Is My Mistress, took note of Jones's contribution to the band's "African, jungle, and oriental pieces.") All things considered, Sam Woodyard may have been the dream Ellington drummer; but not even Woodyard -- who had done the drumming on the State Department tour -- could have driven these pieces with such complex abandon.
I can't imagine anyone disputing that this work stands among the best of the Ellington suites -- even though it faces stiff compeititon, from such notable contenders as Black, Brown and Beige, the Perfume Suite, and A Drum Is A Woman (and from less well-known collections like the Goutelas Suite and The River). The portraits in the Far East Suite display a variety, a range of emotion and expression -- but also an interconnectedness -- that surpass most of the others; there exists no better example of Ellington's genius for transmuting the most personal artistic details into music of universal insight. In addition, there is the extraordinary level of the individual solos, revealing (in Stanley Dance's phrases) "the inspiration of unusual chords." As Ellington wrote in Musical Journal, "The tour was a great adventure for us on what is indeed the other side of the world. Sometimes I felt it was this world upside down. The look of the natural country is so unlike our and the very contours of the earth seem to be so different." Perhaps it is that still palpable sense of wonder and discovery that, some three years after the tour itself, so elevated these performances.
But then, I'm a bit biased. The Far East Suite was the first jazz album I purchased, in 1968, back when I was just starting -- no, actually before I'd really begun -- to explore jazz. Three years later, "Mount Harissa" (a movement from the Suite) became the theme song of my college radio program, as well as the program's name; twenty years later, I ask myself if Paul Gonsalves's surging solo on that tune sounds so ineulctably perfect because of the couple hundred times I've listened to it, or whether it's the other way around.
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The process of creation is usually messy, and the assemblage of the Far East Suite offers a case in point. Seven of its nine pieces were completed soon after the State Department tour, but the finale came a good deal later, following the orchestra's 1964 tour of Japan. "Mount Harissa," the emotional high point of the work, was probably not written until 1965, and in fact, its first working title suggests that it wasn't originally planned for the Suite at all.
But Ellington never threw anything out, and melodies and arrangements from years earlier (as well as from last week) often lay dormant until the proper setting presented itself. Another such example is the voluptuous Strayhorn ballad that eventually gained the title "Isfahan." The best known melody in this collection, "Isfahan" has had a life entirely separate from the Suite. It first appears on a New York studio session from July 1963 (two months before Ellington visited the Middle East), when it undoubtedly carried a different working title -- probably one of the four-letter code names Ellington assigned to pieces in progress. Whatever its name, the song graced the band's concert repertoire as early as May 1964. It is also the only part of the suite to have a post-Suite existence, covered in recent years by Marian McPartland, Art Farmer, and Gary Burton.
Such minituae, while intriguing, nonetheless begs the issue. For even though its individual components shine with the supernal allure of rare Oriental gems, it is their context -- the way in which each contributes to the greater whole -- that makes the Far East Suite so remarkable. Ellington and Strayhorn gave us more than a handful of jewels; they provided a carefully chosen, symmetrically arranged collection. Each segment of the Suite functions as an integral part of this symphonic-length work. With the first, fifth, and ninth movements providing the big statements, the Suite has an almost palindromic symmetry: were you to start with the last movement and proceed backwards to the first, the ballads would fall in the same place, the lively dances would still provide the appropriate comic relief. It would be as if you had started the tour in Japan and ended in Jordan, instead of the other way around.
The band actually landed in Damascus, which served as a staging area before the first concert in the ancient Roman city of Amman, Jordan. Ellington's "Notes on the State Department Tour," which appear in Music Is My Mistress, remarks on the sudden sensory assault presented by his introduction to the Orient: "the smells of spices and garlic and exotic perfumes. There are marvelous brocades, oriental rugs, glass and copper trays, inlaid and engraved . . . The cats in the band go crazy about everything they see." So did Ellington: his journal is crammed with observations detailing the gulf separating Eastern life from Western sensibilities.
That gulf provies the impetus for the Suite's curtain-raiser, "Tourist Point of View," which communicates the tremendous excitement of setting foot in "this world upside down." This piece not only introduces the suite; it also serves to introduces the band itself. In five evocative minutes, Ellington and Strayhorn were able to highlight all the orchestra's important elements: the scorching trumpet of Cat Anderson; the well-matched burnishes of the trombone section; the burry, shaded timbre of Gonsalves's juggernaut tenor, rising from the rich textures of the reed section; the unmistakable touch and prominent accents of Ellington's piano; the dark energy that characterized much of his later writing. Its programmatic purpose aside, this piece is a virtual primer on the Ellington sound.
The amusing "Bluebird of Delhi" (subtitled "Mynah") is the first of Hamilton's impressive features. In the original liner notes, Ellington explained to Stanley Dance that the bird in question "sang the pretty lick Jimmy Hamilton plays on clarinet. He sang it all the time Billy Strayhorn was in his room [an indication that this one is mostly, if not entirely, Strayhorn's]. Then, when he left, the bird sounded the low raspberry you hear at the end of the number." Hamilton's portrayal of the title character deserves the nod, but not at the expense of either the introductory brass setting or the puissant, pulsing second theme, with its indelible ambiguity of major and minor tonality. This movement displays how Ellington could blend his own individuality with the equally imposing uniqueness of his source material.
"Mynah" provides an ingratiating transition to "Isfahan," a song in which the heightened sensibilities of Strayhorn and Hodges entwine in a performance at once sensuous and pristine. The melody, I think, stands just a niche below the very greatest ballads in Ellingtonia; its dramatic setting, with the saxes gently but firmly nudging the alto line, defines elegance. And Hodges doesn't merely play, or even caress, the melody; he joins with it, and together, they ravish anyone within earshot. In the original liner notes, Ellington described Isfahan (pre-Khomeini, of course), as a city "where everything is poetry. They meet you at the airport with poetry and you go away with poetry."
Poetry gives way to dance in "Depk," which, according to Ellington's journal, the band first encountered in Amman, following the tour's opening concert. The Depk dance, Ellington recalled, involved a dozen boys and girls and was marked by a little kick on the sixth beat. Nestled between "Isfahan" and the glory of "Mount Harissa," this short tune might get lost, were it not for the catchy (though intricate) melody line. "The music of Jordan is haunting, formidable, beautiful, and compelling," wrote Ellington, but "Depk" clearly represents its lighter side.
The infectiousness of "Depk" finds its counterpart in the driving spirituality of "Mount Harissa"; again, the pacing of the suite is incomparable. This movement takes its name from the hilltop, some 15 miles from Beirut, on which stands a huge statue of Our Lady of Lebanon. Harissa was one of the band's last memories. After Beirut, they traveled to Turkey; there they learned of John F. Kennedy's assassination, which forced the cancellation of the remaining weeks of the tour. "Mount Harissa" is really two pieces: the haunting first theme, delineated by Ellington's expressive piano, and the hard-swinging second section, which is given over to Gonsalves, without peer in the Ellington annals for his ability to creatively sustain a long solo. As Gonsalves winds down and the band gives way to the return of the main theme, Ellington's arpeggios shower the transition, and the piece relearns the energized serenity with which it began. As a composition, it is oceanic; as a performance, merely unalterable.
"Blue Pepper" is the only part of the Suite that sounds contrived in its blend of East and West, dated in its rock-music accents. But the brassy strut of Hodges's saxophone sets us up for the splendor of "Agra," which belongs to the distinguished baritone saxophone of Harry Carney. (Perhaps more than any other single sound, Carney's unruffled sonority identified the Ellington orchestra.) Agra is the Indian city that borders the Taj Mahal; as Ellington said in the original liner notes, this piece "take[s] in a little more territory that that marble edifice dedicated to the tremendous love for a beautiful woman. We consider the room in which the man who built it was imprisoned by his son. For the rest of his life he was forced to live there and look out at -- the Taj Mahal." Ellington himself, bedridden with fever and colic, didn't get to see the Taj, but that apparently had no effect on his ability to portray its beauty and its tragedy.
From the splendor of the Taj to the hurtling mystery of "Amad": Stanley Dance described the saxophone writing as "damascene," and referred to Lawrence Brown's "call to prayer." Like the initial "Tourist Point of View," this piece typifies the general overview of the Middle East, shared by Ellington and Strayhorn, as a describable but ultimately inscrutable phenomenon.
"Ad Lib on Nippon" may have been written last, inspired by an entirely different tour, but in purely musical terms, it very much belongs to the Suite; in fact, I would argue that its inclusion was necessary for the artistic integrity of the work. A minor blues, its first discernible theme (marked by the bowed bass line played by John Lamb) briefly echoes the Suite's middle movement, "Mount Harissa" -- thus cementing the Suite's symmetry. From there, Ellington's piano builds a series of increasingly inventive variations that then make their way, at fast tempo, into the ensemble. After a piano interlude, the climax is provided by Jimmy Hamilton's clarinet escapade, his longest solo on record, and one of his best. (Hamilton's performance lends credence to his claim that "Ad Lib" was in fact his own composition, and it's reasonable to assume that he in any case played a large part in its development.)
"Ad Lib" ends without the grand resolution expected of a finale, and -- as some have complained -- its loose, freewheeling approach does indeed contrast with the compact writing that characterizes the rest of the Suite. But I hear "Ad Lib" in the same way I hear Dizzy Gillespie's "Things To Come," pointing toward the future, more notable for its suggestion than its resolution. Ellington was not only ahead of his time in concentrating on the clash of cultures when East meets West, a subject that has intrigued a far younger generation of jazz musicians from the mid '70s to the present; he was also prescient in looking toward Japan as a source of power and inspiration.
Of course, nobody familiar with Ellington's life will be surprised at such prescience: whether giving voice to the yearnings of his people, as in Black, Brown and Beige, or to modern man's return to spirituality (the three Sacred Concerts), he precisely embodied Ezra Pound's description of artists as "the antennae of the [human] race." In the Far East Suite, he combined the roles of artist and tourist, historian and predictor, wise man and wide-eyed child. The result was one of his finest achievements, one of the three albums to win him a Grammy Award, and one of of his three albums to be selected "Record of the Year" by Down Beat magazine.
If I could buy my first jazz album all over again, this would still be the one.
I wish to thank the Ellington historian Stanley Dance and Dan Miller of the Duke Ellington Society, Ray Nance (Chicago) Chapter, for their assistance in preparing these notes. -- NT