|Well, maybe there’s some justice in the universe after all. It seems that in an attempt to make us forget that something like Insane Clown Posse exist, a respite has been granted:http://grooveshark.com/#/playlist/Duke+Ellington+Far+East+Suite/63409674This album does have bonus tracks (all alternative takes), if you want to see what they are and attempt to track them down and give them a listen, please feel free:
|RC: Duke Ellington – Far EastSuite
Least favorite track/tracks:
Overall (1-5 stars): 5
|Duke Ellington – Far East Suite: 4 stars
Precon: He’s George Washington on the jazz Mount Rushmore. I like most everything I’ve heard from him.
Favorite Track: Blue Pepper, Amad, Ad Lib on Nippon
I’m getting the “Far East” thing right away. It’s like an Indian or Moroccan feel.
Magic the Gathering Card: “Dancing Scimitar”
|1st off the wiki: I mean we could all look at it ourselves, but in case you didn’t : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Far_East_Suite
Preconceived Notions: This was my choice in an attempt to continue to ease RC into jazz that is less traditional, but no less astounding. I remember when I 1st heard this album I thought it would be one of my favorites forever….and, well I was right. This unique effort of bringing blues based jazz to an eastern modality produced something that could be enjoyed by causal listener, right on down through the most discerning musician’s ears.
After Listening: Before we get to the genius of Ellington, let’s talk about the strength of his supporting cast on this record, in particular: Jimmy Hamilton – clarinet & tenor sax, Johnny Hodges – alto sax, and Harry Carney-baritone sax. So many things are done right on this album, but highlighting the woodwinds seems very appropriate given the intense tone color they provide in so many spots. By this stage in Ellington’s career he was able to command the very best from his performers and mold them around central ideas. It’s impossible to describe this album in broad terms without diminishing it – so let’s look at the tracks individually.
Tourist’s Point of View – The opening track is a deliberate confusion of multiple eastern ideas swelling and falling – possibly with the idea of conveying a Western’s 1st glimpse at a strange culture and the confusion represented therein. It’s also a little dark in places, you’re unsure if it’s about to go careening off into cacophony. On the whole though, the piece is tonal we get our 1st exposure to the remarkable woodwind work here, but also as the piece develops the excellent rolling drums, the muted trombone, and the very subtle basswork of John Lamb.
Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah) – Ladies and gentlemen Mr. Jimmy Hamilton. Did you ever think a clarinet could do that? It’s a simple on the nose idea of a clarinet representing a singing bird – and an annoyed hotel guest that can’t get to sleep. Well, the clarinet certainly “sings” – and Jimmy highlights the expressive advantages of the clarinet as a solo instrument. Not to be overlooked on this are the muted trumpets which also sing in jagged moments as our own aggravated thoughts at this repetitive bird, or the bass striking perfect simple accompaniment to the return of the clarinet them-stripped down at the end.
Isfahan – Ladies and Gentlemen Mr Johnny Hodges. Actually there’s a lot more than alto sax on this track, but there’s no question the sax line steals the show. It’s a ballroom waltz construct, with eastern scales possibly attempting to convey the beauty of a city – as Isfahan is an ancient city in Iran known for its incredibly beautiful architecture. Ellington’s composer credit (and probably Billy Strayhorn’s as well) shines on this track – as he just seemingly knows when to pull the string on dropping everything out – whether it’s the baritone sax’s answer to the last hanging lines of a Hodge’s phrase, or the moments when the upright bass is allow to showcase for a few brief measures – there’s just a cohesion to this piece full of subtle wonderful moments that is deceptively hard to orchestrate with a piece so deliberate and embellished.
Depk – This gives us really the 1st lead work on the album by Ellington the performer on piano. It’s an upbeat swing item that gives us a reminder of the western roots driven by a dance style rhythm – with chorus effect horns and winds. However, near the end of the piece we get the piano bludgeoning us briefly with a chord driven rhythm slightly “off” to our ears…and then a single note piano line in the same fashion….always modulating and not quite finding a home til the end.
Mount Harissa – More piano work, with an accompanying shifting rhythm that is clearly Mid Eastern in nature. Paul Gonsalves handles the tenor sax lead work on this one, and gives us an ascending melody-as we are encouraged to picture someone climbing the mountain of Harissa – a famous pilgrimage sight in Lebanon. Admittedly, this is not my favorite track on the album, as despite some excellent short piano refrains –it dries up a little, before building to its climax and descent.
Blue Pepper – Now this one, this one was one of the 1st tracks to grab me on this record. It has a very strong blues base, even early rock base – and you can tell Ellington wants us to refocus on the Western Elements of his music….just before blending back in the eastern tone. It’s high energy – the drums have some particular strengths – and the interplay between the piano and Hodge’s alto sax showcase two musicians both masters at their crafts and extremely comfortable with each other after years of playing together.
Agra – Ladies and Gentlemen Mr. Harry Carney on the baritone sax. Ok, I’ll stop using that now, but attention must be paid to the wonderfully dark and mysterious tones produced on this track. It makes me think of all the arid dessert stretch of land (sandstorm and all) that I endured on my own visit to Agra- only to arrive at a hauntingly beautiful Taj Mahal. This track however focuses more on the somber reason for the Taj, as a burial chamber for a lost love – and fittingly the track’s darker and sadder elements craft it into something uniquely beautiful. One of my favorites.
Amad – Turkish for sure, Ellington gives us a little gyspy flavor here. Energetic and driven by a strong bass line which gives everyone room to improvise over the top. The entire piece is based around only one chord – so every melody line which is broken off shares the same general root, and it’s up to the players to counter each other with new ideas inside that constraint. It’s an aggressive sounding work and might be the most of what the west would think of as “jazz” of the pieces on this album.
Ad Lib on Nippon – Finally the “far east”. Ellington’s sense of geography may have been the only thing off about the album to this point. As the title suggests there is both a lot of improv and a lot of Asian influences present. The work has stripped out sections of piano & bass, high tempo sections with trios and then quartets trading off…the remarkable thing, is throughout these very loosely connected segments the constants are the blues and Asian elements present in the chords of the instruments. So you get no real rhythm cohesion, no dynamic cohesion, and no real instrumentation….at the end all you have are the notes-the blues and the Asian in both harmony, and then competition. At about 5 and a half mins the piece takes an abrupt turn into a stunningly beautiful solo piano section – where Duke reminds us of the full gamut of tones we are being blasted with – the soft and poignant 2 min (or so) interlude is a true gem…but wait, there’s more…Jimmy Hamilton and his clarinet return to join us back into a sort of beautiful solo vs orchestra tradeoff. This one section alone, from Ellington’s solo piano – through Hamilton through the end of the song encapsulates all of the strengths (but not all of the joys) of the album and is a perfect finisher.
Overall 5.0 Legendary jazz composer with legendary jazz performers, who on top of that wants to go outside a traditional comfort box? Yes please. Remember this was created in 1966 – which was pre globalization…Hell it’s a 2 years before the Beatles trip toIndia. Ellington couldn’t just hop online and read about Eastern musical influences, he had to go, he had to experience…and then he had to relate them to an American audience and blend them with his own western sensibilities. This is a clever, beautiful, and inspired work that still holds up nearly 50 years later as a monumental musical achievement.