Clearly the time that we share on our planet is already a time of connections, of information that is only a click away. A person could scroll around YouTube learning of Saami folk music at one moment, of Balinese music the other, of classical composers that for the first time used such and such musical forms and hearing a mainstream musical group the other.
When I first heard the Far East Suite I had already been an Ellington fan for one very important reason; he made contemporary music. During his time of course.
Many before him did exactly the same thing, creating popular music and developing it as an art form. Such was music of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart who all for at least once stepped into the waters of ethnic music.
The Far East suite is a Western Composer's window into the East and a listener's distorted image of its sunsets, palaces, rooftops, jungles and dances. It is not merely an outlook of the ethnic melodies or should it be resented as being not-authentic-enough. It is seen from the eyes of the composer, showing the true artist's impression, his own subjectivity and his right to do such.
*At this point I should point out that Ellington is not the sole composer of the suite, but it is filtered through the partnership with the co-composer Billy Strayhorn.
The suite is designed symmetrically, meaning that if you go from the first song toward the last, you would get exactly the same arrangement of musical moods as if you were going the other way around. This means it is conceived as a tour through the actual places it portrays.
The suite opens with "Tourist Point of View", making the initial statement that would describe the whole suite. Musically the piece itself has no particular theme, instead it uses small fragmented deliberately exotic themes to show that this is merely an outlook, possibly not a well understood one of an outsider.
The second movement of the suite takes us into the world of a small bird called "Mynha, the bluebird of Delhi". The story is that in India a hotel guest cannot fall asleep thanks to a small bird outside his window that keeps repeating the same four intervals. Technically, Jimmy Hamilton's clarinet sings us the song of the Mynha, while the talking trumpets might be our own thoughts and frustrations, probably far more complex than the initial bird's intervention.
From this point on we finally go exploring the Eastern cities. The first one , although not initially intended on having this role, is a painting of the Persian city of "Isfahan". The slow motion of the song and the golden glissando of Johnny Hodges' playing truly seem to place Isfahan's golden rooftops in our minds. The arrangement is evoking the gold that we got used to in Disney's cartoon music and again proves the reality in which the author(s) lived.
"Depk" is a very short up-tempo dance number. It is inspired by a middle eastern dance but accomplished with the theme and arrangement inspired by both far and near eastern musical scales. It is a simple complexity on its own.
Near the, maybe unfortunately, religious centre of the world stands "Mount Harrissa", a place which Ellington described with his already famous soloist Paul Gonsalves. It starts with the piano and drum groove evoking the daylight and then proceeds into Gonsalves' long tonal hike onto the mountain. The piece ends the same way as it begins, for once the mountain has been climbed, we must return.
"Blue Pepper" is a strong return to the American traditions. It is a blues progression with a rock and roll groove, at times even resembling the famed "Amen Break" of 1969, with a melody clearly derived from a blues tune, but with strong trills and an obvious eastern sound. Probably it represents the everyday effect of globalization that at that time merely started.
"Agra" is a dark ballad lead by the baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and his distinctive raw sound. The atmosphere of the piece tries to represent the story that once happened in Agra, the construction of the Taj Mahal as a tomb to emperor Shah Jahan's wife, the grief and the loss.
As is possible in our round, overly connected world, we now travel into the middle eastern city of "Amad". Actually we melodically travel far into the Balcan peninsula, hearing Ellington's sections playing evokes such a strong simulation of gypsy brass bands that we almost appear in the last of the former Turkish frontiers at times. The piece is composed of only one chord and thus leads us into a mantra of strong, aggressive melodies, dissonance, and various counter rhythms.
"Ad Lib on Nippon" is the final piece of the suite, written somewhat later than others. It is based around a blues progression but goes much further than that and could be considered a suite on its own right. Piano and clarinet are the seemingly ad lib instruments here, changing states from highly arranged up tempo orchestra parts to the loosened trios and quartets that form out of the east Asian scales. Nippon might be used as a decoy-name for the piece since it seems to open our eyes to the landscapes of all of East Asia, the rice fields and the Fuji mountain, the Yangtze river and the Japanese sea.
At points the Far East Suite doesn't truly seem as a thoroughly connected collection of songs, albeit the eastern musical elements, but as with the ballet music of the classical times, it is the overall concept, the story line that moves throughout. In this sense I consider this work as both far ahead and far behind, being that it is rooted in tradition but at the same time conceptually foresees the present cultural trends, the strong globalization 46 years ahead.
It truly deserves to be a "far – " work.