Duke Ellington - The Far East Suite
Jun 2, 2021 (updated Jun 2, 2021)
The History of The Albums – n° 343

[I also recommend you to read my previous review on Duke Ellington - Money Jungle, in order to better understand the context and this one]. Undeniably passionate, this monument of music named Duke Ellington has crossed the history of Jazz, as if he had been there from the beginning to the end of the last but one revolutionary area. To imagine what this means, consider that Duke Ellington died of cancer at the age of 75 in 1974, with exactly 50 years of career behind him. During his lifetime, this legend was involved in all the different jazz movements, except for Nu-Jazz, from Dixieland to Jazz Funk. By way of comparison, not even Louis Armstrong managed to achieve such a long and significant longevity. Longevity is only one proof in itself, however, Duke Ellington has always revolutionized or been among the best in any jazz genre/style he has undertaken: Dixieland, Swing, Big Band, Third Stream, Vocal Jazz and even Hard Bop. In my opinion he is without question the greatest "actor" of the Big Band movement. To add even more to all this, Duke Ellington delivered a phenomenal quantity of classic albums, solo or in collaboration, and above all dozens and dozens of Standards which still travel the music today.

This last chapter dedicated to him supports the extraordinary phenomenon that he was. In 1967, Pop Rock had for some years pushed Jazz from a popular genre to a specialist one, apart from a few more pop, more mainstream exceptions. While the avant-garde, free jazz and post-bop dominated the underground as the revolutionary and creative movements of the time, Duke Ellington had already had a 43-year career, but that didn't stop him from reuniting with the Big Band against all odds. Although he was a master of the style, it was no mean feat to achieve. On the contrary, the 60's saw a total detachment from the outdated traditional styles of jazz, of which the Big Band was a total part. That is to say, apart from a few works by Gil Evans at the beginning of the decade, there are no good albums of this type. However, even Duke Ellington understood this by surfing on other registers, he offered us this fantastic Far East Suite album. So today we're going to revisit one of the last wonders of his repertoire, whose bluffing success earned him a Grammy Award in 1968.

The fabulous thing about Duke Ellington is that despite being one of the last "dinosaurs" to retain his strong popularity and appeal for his music, he opened up in the 1960s to different types of projects that took him out of his comfort zone. He first worked with Louis Armstrong on "Together For First Time" (1961), with Count Basie on "First Time The Count Meets The Duke" (1962), with John Coltrane on "Duke Ellington & John Coltrane" (1963), with Coleman Hawkins on "Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins" (1963) or on "Money Jungle" with Charlie Mingus and Max Roach (1963). Ellington seemed inexhaustible, even after 2/3 years of more discreet, forgettable concepts. In the middle of the decade, he made the excellent choice of leaving Reprise to sign with RCA, with whom he would flourish and embark on a UK tour with one of his long-time collaborators and composer Billy Strayhorn. It was with him that Duke Ellington worked on Far East Suite, for the very last time, since the unfortunate man died the year of its release in 1967.

Recorded in December 1966, Far East Suite is one of the most complex and adventurous albums of Ellington's career. Its thematic focus on Eastern, Middle Eastern and Asian culture was basically inspired by a 1963 world tour he made with his band. This work is not only spirited, but also marked by a deep creativity that remains astonishing for a legend who has already offered so much and whose doubts about the end of his career are still contradicted by a counter-example. Spread over 9 songs, Ellington and Strayhorn have opted for a relatively short content for jazz formats, with the exception of Mount Harissa and Ad Lib On Nippon, so that the experience remains exquisite from start to finish. Inspired by oriental sounds, Duke Ellington relies on a Big Band full of talent, including his own son Mercer Ellington and Johnny Hodges, with an approach that often strays towards the Third Stream. It is a coherent whole, alternating between sultry compositions like Tourist Point Of View/Amad, languid ballads like the standard Isfahan/Agra, more exotic sounds like Mount Harissa and finally bluesy demonstrations like Blue Pepper. This work remains above all the fruit of a passion that animates this Big Band and its leader, whose virtuosity and suspense remain unbearable, so colourful, so endearing. Far East Suite concludes with Ad Lib On Nippon, one of the most delirious compositions in Duke Ellington's repertoire, straying from the beaten track to deliver a radiant musical madness.
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