Far East Suite
“Brown and his colleagues have taken the Far East Suite a giant step beyond [its] original jazz orchestra parameters, which is a major accomplishment.”
— Jazz Times magazine
In homage to the musical legacy and humanitarian achievements of Duke Ellington, Brown chose to commemorate Ellington’s 1999 centennial with a new interpretation of the Far East Suite, blending the sounds of the jazz orchestra with musical instruments and concepts from Iran, Japan, and China.
Anthony Brown’s Liner Notes To “Far East Suite”
This recording of the FAR EAST SUITE is the culmination of a ten-year-long endeavor, the fulfillment of a marriage between a research project and a dream. The idea of blending Asian and Middle Eastern instruments and sensibilities into the multicultural mélange of Duke Ellington and collaborator Billy Strayhorn’s musical travelogue first occurred in 1989 while I was a doctoral research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s newly acquired Duke Ellington Collection. During the fellowship, I was able to examine many of the thousands of original and copied manuscripts, scores, sketches and band parts as yet uncataloged in the archives.
In 1991, I premiered a precursory project, a new version of Ellington’s 1928 Cotton Club “jungle music” classic, “The Mooche,” at the tenth anniversary of the Asian American Jazz Festival at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. After completion of my doctoral coursework at UC Berkeley in 1992, I was hired by the Smithsonian to direct the Jazz Oral History Program, serve as curator of musical culture and assist in the completion of the Duke Ellington traveling exhibition, “Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington.” Thus, the heretofore dream of first-hand accessibility to Ellington’s musical magic was realized during my four years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
A similar albeit more extensive process of intensive research and study was conducted for a new FAR EAST SUITE. The nine-movement Ellington-Strayhorn original is a musical portrait of the countries and people who welcomed them and the Orchestra on their tours in the 1960s. This new arrangement was originally conceived as a fitting commemoration of the Duke Ellington centennial, a celebration of his homage to Asia and the Middle East.
The FAR EAST SUITE seemed ideally suited as a musical mirror of today’s global community, a scintillating tapestry of contrasting moods, compositional styles, approaches to modality and tonality, and always the blues.
There is only one commercial release of the Ellington Orchestra performing the FAR EAST SUITE, although various versions of “Ad Lib on Nippon” and the July 1963 recording of “Isfahan” (originally titled “Elf”) are currently available on CD. Also, with the kindness of Sjef Hoefsmit and the Society of Duke Ellington Musical Study [DEMS], I had access to live recordings of Duke’s band on tour in Europe performing several fresh excerpts of the FAR EAST SUITE in February 1964. Through examining original manuscripts, orchestral parts and subsequent transcriptions, and by creating a score reduction from the original 15- to a 12-piece orchestra with the invaluable arranging and copying assistance of Dan Nielsen, a blueprint for a new interpretation was constructed. The process now involved creating an arrangement incorporating and showcasing the distinctive talents of the members of Asian American Orchestra.
ASIAN AMERICAN ORCHESTRA
I have led large ensembles beginning in 1986 at Rutgers University to perform original extended works, and continuing in 1988 in Berlin to perform a commissioned work, EAST/WEST PROJEKT, with an orchestra comprised of American and East and West Berlin musicians. Other earlier prototypes include Anthony Brown’s Uptown Showdown (1988-91) and [African EurAsian] Eclipse (1992-97), after Ellington’s suite inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 prediction of “the world going oriental.” The current Asian American Orchestra represents the realization of an international ensemble capable of an unprecedented versatility and variety of repertoire.
The Asian American Jazz Orchestra, originally assembled in 1998 for a national touring project on the Japanese internment experience of World War II (Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, Asian Improv Records), features artists who are steeped in the jazz tradition and who possess native fluency on a variety of indigenous instruments. The Orchestra is now comprised of critically-acclaimed leaders of San Francisco’s Asian American creative music movement Mark Izu, Masaru Koga and Henry Hung; the Director of Melody of China ensemble, Yangqin Zhao; mainstays of the thriving Latin jazz scene Wayne Wallace, Melecio Magdaluyo and Marcia Miget; and leading session artists Geechi Taylor and Dave Martell.
Although the members represent the intercultural musical mosaic of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Orchestra’s roots are in the Asian American creative music movement, and the prominence of Asian sonorities and sensibilities define our sound and style. Hence, the creation of this orchestra could only be realized in the San Francisco Bay Area, “gateway to the East.”
THE FAR EAST SUITE
At the first rehearsal of the Asian American Orchestra, the members received their parts from the arrangement for our reduced jazz orchestra. We all had various experiences with the FAR EAST SUITE; two had performed it last summer with Louis Bellson’s Orchestra, others were first introduced to the work only months before. We read the charts down, referenced phrasing, articulations, tempi and voicings with those of the Ellington recording.
At the second rehearsal, we began to incorporate new elements and create a musical interpretation in our own languages and dialects; the arrangement evolved as we conversed verbally and musically. After two more rehearsals, we premiered the new arrangement to SRO audiences at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center on a stormy day in February. The next month we had one more rehearsal, went to the studio and recorded the suite in two days.
Whereas an “authentic” re-creation of the original serves as the raison d’être for most repertory jazz ensembles, the Ellington original served as a point of departure for our journey. This treatment of the FAR EAST SUITE retains the notes and “itinerary” of the Ellington-Strayhorn original, however we have changed the sonic landscapes and have incorporated some of the indigenous flavors, colors, textures and patterns one encounters traveling the new Silk Road.
This is evident from the first notes of Tourist Point of View intoned on a Persian flute (ney), immediately signaling a more distant time and space, conceivably one experienced by Ellington and company on their travels in Asia Minor. Tourist Point of View and The Bluebird of Delhi also feature Qi improvising excerpts from the extensive catalogues of bird calls found in traditional Chinese and Japanese flute repertoire.
Isfahan represents the Asian American Orchestra’s unique brand of collective approaches to arranging and improvising. The middle section begins with Modirzadeh changing the pace by setting up one of his hometown grooves on the daf, a Persian frame drum. The mood shift is buoyed along by the ney hauntingly intoning the pitches of the Persian Isfahan mode in the distance. The horn backgrounds behind the alto solo are ingeniously improvised, n’cest pas?
Depk, as described by Ellington, was inspired by a dance he saw performed by six couples who kicked on the sixth beat. We shifted the six phrasing to other parts of the melody to forecast the syncopated cross rhythms in the middle section.
The prelude to Mt. Harissa provides an extremely contrasting introduction employing mouth organs (shengs), bassoon and muted trumpets in an arrangement inspired by Gagaku or Japanese court music. Following the piano trio section, the solo spotlight is shared by Modirzadeh and Worley while the Orchestra plays Ellington’s original background arrangements based on the chord changes of Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train.”
We took Ellington at his word when he subtitled Blue Pepper as Far East of the Blues. This collective arrangement reflects the imagined meeting of Ornette Coleman and the musicians of Joujouka, Morocco with the Sun Ra Arkestra, as introduced by Charles Mingus. It begins with Izu playing his bass strings with a chopstick, accompanied by Jang’s liberal improprieties inside the piano with a borrowed drumstick. Qi enters on suona which heralds the hornus cacophonous. The two tenors introduce the theme, originally played to a boogaloo funk beat by Ellington’s band. And of course, one would not be playing Ellington if one did not play some blues...
Agra was written by Billy Strayhorn in reflection of his experience at the Taj Mahal in India. The saxophones were recast as a clarinet trio, to blend with the drone sustained on the sheng and to preserve a traditional voicing codified by the inventor of the jazz orchestra, Fletcher Henderson. Agra was first conducted and the drumset was overdubbed in one take. The original cadential drum roll of Agra is transposed to an oscillating roll (a la an air raid siren) on the pedal tom to accompany the karna introduction to Amad.
Ellington recounted how a military coup was occurring while on tour in Baghdad with planes bombing the capital. His response to queries about his experiences there was, “Man it was swinging!” Again, we took “il Maestro” at his word and extended the piece to include solos for the trumpet and the drumset in addition to Lawrence Brown’s original “call to prayer” trombone feature.
Ad Lib on Nippon begins with a side trip to China’s mainland as reflected in an improvised introduction featuring Qi’s bamboo flute and Jang’s signature hammered dulcimer (yang qin) pianistic style. Jimmy Hamilton’s original virtuosic clarinet obbligatos are deftly interpolated by Jim Norton, who brings the suite to a safe homecoming after a midnight’s romp through Tokyo’s Ginza district, as picturesquely extemporized by the rest of the band.
Ellington’s pioneering of the process of collaborative composition is perhaps his most profound contribution. Music composition, a traditionally singular endeavor in western practices, became the democratic ideal in practice with Ellington’s Orchestra. Ellington and Strayhorn fully intended to write pieces which were evocative of their eastern experiences, yet were idiomatically familiar enough to the orchestra members to be welcomed challenges for personalized expressions.
Recognition by critics of the FAR EAST SUITE as a masterpiece is all the more poignant because it was their last extended collaboration to be recorded during Strayhorn’s lifetime. By the session dates just before Christmas in 1966, Strayhorn knew he was dying of the cancer that would end his life the next May. Of the nine sections of the suite, he contributed only two originals -- Bluebird of Delhi and Agra, since Isfahan had been composed before their eastern tours.
— Anthony Brown, Ph.D.