Monday, November 7, 2016

Slavic Soul Party! Plays Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite”

Slavic Soul Party! Plays Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite.” Ropeadope Records. 2016.

Early or late, elements of the “exotic” often surfaced in Duke Ellington’s music: the growling trumpet and trombone of his 1920s “jungle band,” the misterioso swirl of “Caravan” and “Conga Brava,” the “nouvelle vague exotique“ of Afro-Bossa , the “down under and/or out back” of The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse . The Far East Suite (1966), the last great Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration, is a sustained adventure in the exotic. The work is awkwardly named, having been inspired by the Ellington band’s 1963 travels in Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and a 1964 visit to Japan. The 1963 tour, sponsored by the U. S. State Department, was cut short by the Kennedy assassination, before the band could go on to Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece. How wonderfully strange then that in 2016 a group of New York musicians should continue the journey by Balkanizing this music.

It’s no gimmick: Slavic Soul Party! has reimagined The Far East Suite with deep respect and understanding. The arrangements (by Matt Moran, Jonas Müller, and Peter Hess) evoke their Ellington-Strayhorn sources without falling into mere imitation. The challenge of adapting the material for the band’s instrumentation finds ingenious solutions: the wide intervals of “Ad Lib on Nippon,” for instance, an easy matter for a pianist, are distributed among trombone, clarinet, and accordion, making for unusual tonalities. “Isfahan,” a Johnny Hodges specialty, becomes a slow drag that suggests Kurt Weill, mariachis, and a New Orleans funeral band. “Bluebird of Delhi” and “Amad” detour into intensely rhythmic episodes for clarinet, trombones, and percussion. The musicianship at all times is superb. I especially like hearing Peter Hess, whose baritone saxophone suggests the massive sound of Harry Carney, and whose clarinet evokes both klezmer wails and the urbane Jimmy Hamilton (a major voice in the original Far East Suite ). Among Hess’s responsibilities here: suggesting the majesty of the Taj Mahal in “Agra,” as Carney did before him.

The best non-Ellington recordings of Ellington-Strayhorn music are those that transform their source material into something new: I think immediately of Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron’s Sempre Amore , the Modern Jazz Quartet’s For Ellington , and World Saxophone Quartet Plays Duke Ellington . I place this recording in that company.

One more thing: The exclamation point in the group’s name is warranted. It is impossible to sit still when this record is on.

The program:
Tourist Point of View : Bluebird of Dehli : Isfahan : Depk : Mount Harissa : Blue Pepper : Agra : Amad : Ad Lib on Nippon

The musicians:
John Carlson, Kenny Warren, trumpets : Peter Hess, saxophones and clarinet : Peter Stan, accordion : Matt Musselman, Tim Vaughn, trombones : Ron Caswell, tuba : Chris Stromquist, snare and percussion : Matt Moran, tapan/goč/bunanj

Related reading and listening
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)
Slavic Soul Party! (Listen here)
Live performances of “Amad” from 2013 and 2015 (YouTube)

[Four asides: 1. “Caravan” and “Conga Brava” are largely the work of Ellington’s valve-trombonist Juan Tizol. 2. The phrases “nouvelle vague exotique” and “down under and/or out back” are Ellington’s. 3. Matt Moran’s credit may be a bit of a joke: as far as I can tell, tapan, goč, and bunanj (the first two Serbian, the last Bosnian) all mean the same thing: drum. 4. Something I don’t get: the album cover. Elephant? Ellington? Upside-down?]

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