SRJO & Far East Suite meet in the middle

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.

Ellington's Far East Suite cover artThe 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”:

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

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7 responses to “SRJO & Far East Suite meet in the middle

  1. Look a little closer. Hodges IS actually reading the chart that Duke is holding. Watch his eyes. Hodges looks a little…tired, shall we say. Why Duke decided to hold the chart out for him, we’ll probably never know. There are a couple of times where their eyes meet, and that’s where the story lies. It’s a gorgeous rendition of Isfahan, in any case. I can’t wait for Saturday’s SRJO show!

  2. This video is identified on YouTube as being from “Jazz65” but I think the person who posted it meant “Jazz625,” which was a BBC series that has many segments that can be viewed on YouTube. This clip of Isfahan was recorded 21 Feb 1964. Isfahan, along with the other four pieces that made up a 5-part suite titled “Impressions of the Far East,” was premiered in concert during the band’s February 1964 tour to London, Milan and Paris. However, Isfahan was composed in July 1963, so the band had certainly played the piece long before this performance in front of a live audience for BBC television. Hodges and the band certainly knew the piece, as evidenced by the supreme confidence with which Hodges begins, and with which the band enters behind him right on cue in the correct tempo. It is possible that Hodges asked Duke to hold the new sheet music up for him so he could glance at it without having to bend over to view it on the rather low-placed music stands they are using. However, Ellington (ever the showman) was fond of making the point that a piece was newly written, holding up a new manuscript in front of a soloist as if to say “this is so new, we’re playing it for the first time this evening just for this audience.” Based on how confidently the entire band plays, I believe Hodges knew the piece, and did not need Ellington to hold it up for him. The glance at the left by Hodges at 1:40 is because he plays a wrong note in the melody (but the delivery is so beautiful, who cares?). He makes the same mistake at 3:08, so maybe the manuscript was not clear. Hodges joined the band in March 1928 (at this time it was known as Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra). Except for a brief break from 1951-55, Hodges remained a key figure in the band from 1928 until his death in 1970 (a total of sixty-two years). Ellington loved “Rabbit” dearly, and the only extended time when they had conflict was during those years in the 50s when Hodges struck out on his own.

  3. Some more history…I needed to find out more about Isfahan to share with our audiences at the SRJO concerts this weekend. It turns out that Isfahan was originally titled “Elf” (and written by Strayhorn) and first recorded on July 18, 1963. This was BEFORE the State Department tour in September of 1963. It was retitled “Isfahan” after the State Department tour. THUS….Isfahan (“Elf”) had been in the repertory of the Ellington band a good 6 months before that BBC “Jazz26” broadcast was filmed.

  4. Pingback: Young blood: top soloists presented by SRJO « The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Blog

  5. Pingback: A Year-end Report From SRJO « The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Blog

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