This weekend the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra present two rare performances Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, the epic work in nine movements composed by Duke Ellington along with his writing collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, for the Ellington band’s history-making State Department tours of the 1960s and early 1970s.
The suite, which opens with “Tourist Point of View”, was inspired by Ellington’s (and Billy Strayhorn’s) experiences during the band’s State Department-sponsored tour of Syria, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and other countries. It’s truly the Middle East which provided much of the inspiration, as Ad Lib On Nippon is the only song with a “far east” reference. As Neil Tesser‘s writes in his in-depth liner notes from the original 1988 CD release:
“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.”
Billy Strahorn’s beautiful ballad “Isfahan”, perhaps the best known piece from the suite, actually appeared on a July ’63 NY studio session, two months before Duke and the band left for the tour. As Kurt Gottschalk points out in his review of the album:
The concept is carried out in the titles more than the music. But it’s still a good Duke Ellington record, which is to say it’s a great record. Strayhorn’s “Agra” is beautiful and “Nippon” is infectious. Duke Ellington’s back burner was still hotter than most musician’s ovens.
Of course Kurt is a huge Ellington fan. The #1 title on his Desert Island Disc list Duke Ellington’s “The Centennial Edition: RCA Victor Recordings” which has 462 tracks! Is that even fair?
Nobody would argue Isfahan’s comfortable fit into the suite, but does anyone know why Ellington stood holding sheet music in front of Johnny Hodges during this solo, or why Hodges pretty much doesn’t look at it? Commenters on the video speculate and argue. Please feel free to jump in after this post if you have an idea.
As a special highlight for this weekend’s performances, five award-winning student soloists have been selected to share the stage with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra for the final shows of our 15th concert season, a rare performance of Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite”:
- Andy Clausen, trombone, Roosevelt High School
- Corey Dansereau, trumpet, Roosevelt High School
- Carmen Rothwell, bass, Garfield High School
- Riley Mulherkar, trumpet, Garfield High School
- Evan Shay, alto sax, Garfield High School
These young jazz players are not to be missed, having just returned from another triumphant trip to the Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival at Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as last week’s packed performance at Mc Caw Hall.
Some tickets are still available by calling the Benaroya box office at 206-215-4747 or through the Kirkland Performance Center at 425-893-9900
Saturday, June 19, 2010 7:30 PM | Nordstrom Recital Hall/Benaroya Hall
Sunday, June 20, 2010 3:00 PM | Kirkland Performance Center