Ken Rattenbury’s book on Duke Ellington contains two parts, the second of which is entitled The Music of the Mature Period, 1939 to 1941. If these years represent Ellington’s mature period, we have to wonder where that leaves an album like Far East Suite, released in 1967. By this late stage of his career, Ellington was perhaps just as famous as an ambassador of the United States as he was for his role of jazz composer. It was on a trip through the Middle East in 1963 that inspired the bulk of this album. Ted Gioia criticizes Ellington’s works from this period dismissing them as “suites commemorating Ellington’s travels” but goes on to say that “Duke was mostly working over familiar material,” describing one track, “Mount Harissa,” as “superficially exotic.” It is worth noting that Ellington himself was apprehensive about tackling the East as a musical subject because he wanted to avoid the academic approach of utilizing Eastern scales and structures. In this review, I intend to explore the rhythms and sounds on Far East Suite in order to determine how far it can be regarded as a piece of ‘superficial’ exotica.
Duke Ellington’s career began in the early 1920s and lasted half a century. He became a nationally known musician after his famed residency at the Cotton Club in New York’s Harlem district in the late 1920s due to these performances being broadcast live to radios around the country. Ellington may have cut his teeth in his teenage years playing Harlem stride piano and learning songs by rote but most historians point to the fact that Ellington began composing from a young age because he preferred to learn from experience rather than from books. Rattenbury cites three main aspects to Ellington’s sound: his attitudes towards music and rhythm, his tendency to write musical parts specifically for his sidemen, and his facility at the keyboard. It is the first of these—music and rhythm—that contributed to Ellington’s various styles, such as his jungle style, his mood style and his concerto style. From 1926 Ellington began augmenting his working band with additional sidemen, each with his own unique sound, some of whom were still around by the time he came to record Far East Suite. Once the band had been established with Ellington as its leader and his sideman James Miley providing “the eeriest sort of modulations,” the band embarked on a new stylistic direction, developing a fascination with exotic sounds, which Gioia simply calls “the Ellington sound.” Following the Cotton Club years, Ellington’s career skyrocketed, keeping his band afloat through the depression and on through the swing years.
In 1967, big band jazz was thirty years past its used by date. Jazz had already moved through the swing era, through be-bop, hard bop and free jazz, while Ellington continued to produce jazz as compositionally driven ‘suite’ music. There are no less than fifteen musicians on Far East Suite, with trumpet, trombone and reed sections providing accompaniment for the soloists. The notable soloists here, besides Ellington himself, are Harry Carney on baritone sax with Paul Gonsalves and Johnny Hodges on tenor sax. According to Gioia, Carney’s voice adds “a languorous, weighty character to many of Duke’s mood pieces,” and this can certainly be heard on tracks such as “Tourist Point of View” and “Agra.” Paul Gonsalves saxophone sound on this album has been described as ‘smoky’ by several critics—an apt adjective given the lovely ‘exotic’ atmosphere he adds to “Tourist Point of View,” “Mount Harissa” and “Isfahan.” Nowhere on the album do Ellington and Strayhorn bring in eastern instruments. It is to the writers’ credit that the moods here are all created with traditional jazz instruments.
Creating music based around a touristic impression of foreign cultures was hardly new to jazz nor Ellington in 1967. Ellington’s former collaborator, Juan Tizol, had already written “Caravan” for the Ellington orchestra in 1937. Gioia calls “Caravan,” with its mid-Eastern influenced sound, “an exotic piece with modal overtones that few bandleaders would have considered to be hit material.” Only four years before Far East Suite, Charles Mingus had done something similar with his New Tijuana Moods album based on a trip to Mexico. Thus on Far East Suite, through Gonsalves’ breathy, smoky saxophone phrasing, we are treated to visions of a Persian city in “Isfahan”, while on “Bluebird of Delhi,” memories of travels in India are evoked by an eleven note bird-song melody played by Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. “Depk” more obviously references Arabian music with its uptempo rhythms inspired by middle-Eastern dances. Side One of the LP finishes with the track “Mount Harissa” which complements the rhythms of opener “Tourist Point of View” by revisiting Jones’ intricate cymbal patterns, and reminding us that we are tourists on an impressionistic ‘train journey’ through the East.
It is worth spending time discussing the opening track, for it is “Tourist Point of View” that sets the scene for the whole album and lays a framework for understanding what Far East Suite is about. John Ballon notes that it is Rufus Jones’ “nimble hand on the cymbals” which provides a key ingredient to the Eastern-infused polyrhythms heard on this track. Here there is an undeniable train rhythm-like quality to the percussion which signals that the changing themes represent images and impressions slipping by from a carriage window. The tune opens with the swift, rhythmic pattern of Lamb’s bass heard beneath a see-sawing brass section. Carney’s soft baritone soon comes in, weaving a tune that along with Gonsalves’ sinuous tenor calls to mind for Ben Ratliff, “a TV composer’s idea of snake-charmer music.” There are points where Cootie Williams’ muted trumpet interjects short blasts which evoke train whistles. Partway through the song, the brass and reed sections build an insistent counterpoint pattern into a crescendo of speed and noise which culminates in an exciting climax of screeching clarinets. We can easily imagine some wonderful and dramatic sights on this ‘train journey’. Ballon calls the track, “fresh, dramatic and mysterious…as the East appears to unfamiliar eyes.” The important point is that as listeners, like the composers, we are tourists catching glimpses, and not students of a pseudo Eastern mysticism.
The tracks that most showcase Ellington’s piano skills are “Mount Harissa,” “Amad” and “Ad Lib on Nippon.” Like most of the tracks here, “Mount Harissa” begins and ends symmetrically. Ellington plays several bars of a catchy piano melody which is soon taken up by Gonsalves improvising snaky saxophone lines as part of an antiphonal passage with the brass section. The piano often returns to replace the role of the brass section by colouring the music with decorative high notes and twinkling arpeggios. On “Amad”, perhaps the most ‘Eastern’ of all the pieces here, Ellington sticks with a one chord mantra throughout, while the sections and drums provide a noisy and exciting background. The sections quieten down while Lawrence Brown plays a trombone solo which warbles more exotically than anything else on the album, once again hinting at sounds we might associate with those of the Middle East. “Ad Lib on Nippon” is perhaps the only piece here that we might call ‘Far Eastern’ with regard to geography, but the composition is a subjectively impressionistic piece inspired by Ellington’s frequent visits to Japan. The song begins with dissonant stabs at the piano which might be intended to evoke the sound of the koto. At the five and a half minute mark, the rhythm section halts while Ellington plays an exquisite and complex piano solo with only subtle hints of the dissonances heard earlier. Ratliff calls it “one of the most moving piano solos in Ellington’s catalogue.” Following Ellington, we hear Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet on a short solo that ends in trills before the brass and reed sections bring back the uptempo excitement while Hamilton continues to work his magic. Certainly the imagination has to be exercised in order to hear ‘Nippon’ underneath the constantly changing themes that dominate this piece.
Mak Murtic says that tracks on Far East Suite “use small, fragmented, deliberately exotic themes to show that this is merely an outlook, possibly not a well understood one, of an outsider.” It would be silly to title an album Far East Suite and not use the tools at one’s disposal to conjure up sound-related images of Asia. Ellington achieves this wonderfully with his band of jazz musicians and Eastern song titles which provide the tiniest poetic hints as to the larger portraits painted by these endlessly melodic soundscapes. Given that Ellington had been making ‘exotic-sounding’ jazz for several decades, Far East Suite can hardly be criticized as some kind of superficial exotica. All exotica is more or less ‘superficial’—this is Ellington’s point. Some critics have pointed to the fact that Far East Suite does not actually work as a ‘suite’ in the usual musical sense—the compositions are too varied to work together as part of a whole. That may be true, but ultimately it is the constant variety of styles and sounds heard on Far East Suite that remind us that what we get here is not an education in Eastern music, but simply Ellington’s artistic vision of the excitement anyone feels traveling through foreign lands.
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