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Duke Ellington

 The Far East Suite-Special Mix, RCA Bluebird CD 66551-2

 A late masterpiece, finally in good sound

This is a true treasure. Following tours of the Near East in 1963, and Japan in 1964, Duke and his alter ego Billy Strayhorn composed a suite of several tunes ostensibly inspired by the sights and sounds of the trips. When the resulting LP was released in 1967 it had what seemed to be the worst of RCA's dreadful "Dynagroove" sound: thick, distorted and unpleasant. (Dynagroove basically was a scheme to "pre-distort" the sound on the LP the reverse of the way the needle was expected to distort it on playback, hoping the two distortions would cancel. Interesting idea. Didn't work.)

It turns out that Dynagroove was not entirely to blame. The original mixed-down two-track stereo master tape was distorted, possibly by a mis-aligned recording tape head. So reissue producer Orrin Keepnews found (amazingly!) the original session tapes and had them mixed down anew. There is also some unspecified "audio enhancement" in the digital remastering, which fails to clear up some minor residual distortion on a few cuts (e.g., Hodge's solo on "Blue Pepper"). No matter; the improvements are substantial. Finally, we can hear the group of individuals that made up the Ellington orchestra of 1966 in decent sound, playing arguably the best music of Ellington's last decade. Making the good news even better, Keepnews has added four alternate takes which were not on the original, for over an hour of superb listening.

In spite of the inspiration and Ellington's own testimony, there isn't much exotic in the music here that you wouldn't find in any comparable collection of late Ellingtonia. Perhaps a nod to the modal jazz so influential in the mid-'60s gives the songs a bit more "perfume" than usual, but this is basically just ("just!" ha!) classic Ellington/Strayhorn. Drummer Rufus Jones, in his first recording with the band, is featured prominently playing some tasty, though hardly unusual, cross-rhythms. There are some classics here, particularly Strayhorn's "Isfahan," one of the most beautiful melodies in all of jazz, with one (now two!-what a treat it is to have the second take on this reissue) of Johnny Hodges finest solos. On "Agra," baritone sax player Harry Carney takes a great stretching solo. "Blue Pepper" is a hard-rocking blues, with Jones beating out a rhythm more appropriate to accompany a stripper than a belly dancer. "Bluebird of Delhi" is one of those amazing three-minute jewels Ellington seemed to be able to turn out overnight, which says in its brief span what other composers would take ten minutes to accomplish. Correspondingly, he packs a veritable symphony into the eleven-and-a-half minutes of "Ad Lib on Nippon." "Mount Harissa" is an elegant little six-eight number featuring Duke's piano and Paul Gonsalves' sinewy tenor. Ah, they're all terrific!

RCA has priced this CD very reasonably; I picked up my copy on sale for $8.99. If you don't have any Ellington recordings, you can't go wrong by starting here. Of course, if you don't have any Ellington recordings, shame on you! --Glenn Brooks

production notes & song titles
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Cootie Williams, "Cat" Anderson, trumpets; Mercer Ellington, Herbie Jones, trumpets and flugelhorns; Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, Chuck Connors, trombones; Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet and tenor sax; Johnny Hodges, alto sax; Russell Procope, alto sax and clarinet; Paul Gonsalves, tenor sax; Harry Carney, baritone sax; Duke Ellington, piano; John Lamb, bass; Rufus Jones; drums.

Produced by Brad McCuen and recorded on December 19-21, 1966 by Ed Begley. Originally released as RCA LP LSP-3782 in 1967. Reissue produced by Orrin Keepnews, engineered by James Nichols, and released in 1995. (61:18)

Tourist Point of View | Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah) | Isfahan | Depk | Mount Harissa | Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues) | Agra | Amad | Ad Lib on Nippon | Tourist Point of View (alternate take) | Bluebird of Delhi (alternate take) | Isfahan (alternate take) | Amad (alternate take)

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.