1991, I premiered a precursory project, a new version of Ellington’s 1928 Cotton Club
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.
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.
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.
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
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
going oriental.” The current Asian American Orchestra represents the realization of an international ensemble
capable of an unprecedented versatility and variety of repertoire.
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.
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.”
FAR EAST SUITE
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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...
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.
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.
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.
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
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.