I’ve been compiling a list of my favorite non-classical records, which has grown to include over eighty. The criteria for inclusion are simple. Each record was recorded in a studio, was envisioned as a whole rather than as a compilation of previously released recordings, is over twenty-five minutes long, contains not one bad track, and pretty much blows me away. So far the list ranges pretty widely, featuring disco records like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s eponymous LP, noisy records like Stereolab’s Transient Random Noise-Bursts with Announcements and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Latin records like Tito Puente and His Orchestra’s Dance Mania (the earliest record on the list) and Willie Colón’s Cosa Nuestra, African records like Fela Ransome-Kuti & the Afrika 70’s Afrodisiac, and classic rock records like Something Else by the Kinks. I hope to write about some of these records on occasion, and today’s topic is Duke Ellington and His Orchestra’s 1967 Far East Suite.
Ellington had made it big providing “jungle” dance rhythms for “primitive” dancers like Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker in Harlem’s Cotton Club, a venue designed for whites who wanted to revel in the savage exoticism they associated with African Americans. Ellington understood the appeal of this exoticism and distilled it into a series of wildly evocative three-minute fantasies with titles like “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” “Diga Diga Doo,” “The Mooche,” and, yes, “Hottentot.” These featured unexpected chromaticisms and chord changes, sinuous lines over provocative rhythms, abrupt changes from major to minor and back, instrumental vocalisms, and unconventional voicings.
The Far East Suite was a return to the exoticism that had made Ellington famous. Ellington’s exoticism was always transformative in nature: he never featured actual African drums, ouds, sitars, or panpipes; influences from African and Asian music were always so worked over as to be unrecognizable as native to anyone from those continents. Ellington synthesized the sounds of African, Latin, and Middle Eastern music into something that could only be called Ellingtonian.
But was Ellington therefore an orientalist? Without question. This album is blatantly so, from the titles of the songs (“Bluebird of Delhi,” “Isfahan,” “Amad,” “Ad Lib on Nippon”) to the horrible cover art (with its mosque, minarets, elephant, and snake charmer) to many of the vaguely Middle Eastern sounds. Orientalism in music has always troubled me, whether it be Martin Denny’s evocations of tropical isles or the classical kitsch of Osvaldo Golijov. And I can’t say that I’m untroubled by Ellington’s immersion in this tradition of appropriating exotic cliches.
Yet while it’s impossible, while listening to The Far East Suite, to ignore its orientalism, I don’t think there’s ever been an album which employed it to greater musical effect. At some points as goofy as anything in Saint-Saens’s Carnaval des animaux, it also includes one of Johnny Hodges’s greatest romantic ballads, “Isfahan”; hard-swinging numbers like “Depk” and “Amad”; and a true rock ’n’ roll blues song, “Blue Pepper,” which wouldn’t be out of place on a Ray Charles album. Every piece evokes a different world, from lush to sparse, from tender to threatening; each is hard to forget and completely original; they’re all concise—not one of them outstays its welcome. Ellington, his co-composer Billy Strayhorn, and their band are at their peak here, especially Rufus Jones on drums and John Lamb on bass.
The inspiration for the album was the Ellington orchestra’s trip to Damascus, Amman, Kabul, New Delhi, Ceylon, Tehran, Madras, Bombay, Baghdad, and Ankara (I have no idea why the album is called The Far East Suite since Ellington went primarily to the Near East; only the last song on the record, the eleven-plus-minute “Ad Lib on Nippon,” reflects a later trip to Japan). Addressing his orientalism, Ellington wrote at the time, “Doing a parallel to the East has its problems. From my perspective, I think I have to be careful not to be influenced too strongly by the music we heard. . . . I don’t want to copy this rhythm or that scale. It’s more valuable to have absorbed [it] while there. 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.” This is an entirely different approach from most composers who appropriate folk or exotic material—they use entire melodies, rhythms, and instruments from their sources; Ellington used little other than a feel, a scale, a general impression. Of course, this approach risks being cliché just as much as the other; but The Far East Suite avoids pentatonic scales, chromatic grace notes, and other elements of actual Near Eastern music. Ellington was certainly aware of the traps he could have fallen into—as he wrote, “We didn’t write for two months after [the trip] because we didn’t want to do anything others had done before. The supporting ornamentation behind the main themes is general in color for the whole trip, from Turkey to Ceylon.”
Perhaps the album is best summed up by its opening number. Its title, “Tourist Point of View,” is a frank admission of all the orientalist and exoticist problems the album poses. The piece opens with the entire band softly playing four muddy, complex chords without a clear tonal center. Then, over a slightly unsteady ride cymbal, Lamb improvises a wandering, highly rhythmic bass line over a loosely-conceived D-minor chord. This bass-and-drum pattern continues for the entire five minutes of the song while Paul Gonsalves quietly improvises odd chordal patterns on tenor and the rest of the band play various chords. It’s probably the most confusing and amorphous piece on the record, busy and maddening, with inexplicable pauses and one interlude of anarchy as a trumpeter plays high notes that seem to have no relationship to the chords underneath. Ellington seems to be saying here that the tourist point of view is a semi-aimless wandering one, chaotic, subtle, unpredictable, and dark. At the end of the song, Jones and Lamb simply fade out somewhat abruptly, offering no conclusion, no denouement.
The rest of the record offers few neat packages either. The tonic of many of the songs shifts, often more than once. Some of the songs pack three or more quite different themes into as many minutes. Each dares the listener to anticipate—in vain—what might come next. Rarely has jazz been as surprising, as unsettling, yet as exquisite and pleasurable—in its textures, melodies, rhythms, inventive orchestrations, seductive feel—as on The Far East Suite. And I doubt a sixty-eight-year-old performer has ever made such a youthful record as this one.
In case you don’t know the album, here are a few tracks.