Duke Ellington: Isfahan
Duke Ellington (piano)
Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington (Buddha)
Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, Herbie Jones, Mercer Ellington (trumpets), Lawrence Brown, Chuck Connors, Buster Cooper (trombones), Russell Procope (alto sax), Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), John Lamb (bass), Rufus Jones (drums).
Composed by Billy Strayhorn.
Recorded: New York, December 12, 1966
Rating: 95/100 (learn more)
One of the last collaborations of Ellington and his musical soul mate Billy Strayhorn, this track was part of the major composition Far East Suite, based on impressions from the band's 1963 tour of the Middle and Far East as musical ambassadors sponsored by the U.S. State Department. (Isfahan, or Esfahan, is a city in Iran about 180 miles south of Teheran.) In an interview in The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance, Duke makes clear he did not want to simply copy or be too directly influenced by the music of the East. "It's more valuable to have absorbed it [the music and the area and its culture] while there. You let it roll around, undergo a chemical change, and then seep out on paper in a form that will suit the musicians who are going to play it." He did indeed; this track is best characterized as a tone poem that transcends jazz—"beyond category," as Duke preferred to think of much of his music—and spotlights alto sax master Johnny Hodges.
The opening line establishes the nature and feature playing of this piece, as Hodges blows the main theme with sublime style and exquisite tone. One of the most aesthetically pleasing elements of the recording and composition is that, after the full band's impressionistic buildup, there is a wonderfully effective use of stop time, with Hodges following the pause by again playing the theme, descending in steps from midrange down to rich low-range tones and then rising to a perfect high, in the most beautiful, nuanced way. This is distinctively atmospheric fare, creating a mood and reflective sense, which some music professors and critics classify among the finest of Ellington compositions.
Even so, the unique nature of this track makes it difficult to rate. Listeners seeking rousing, rhythmic, exciting jazz might find this boring; others will see it as a world-class composition that ranks with the top classical music of the century.
Reviewer: Dean Alger