Duke Ellington: Isfahan

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.

March 16, 2009 · 1 comment


Bobby Watson: Isfahan

Since 1987 was the Chinese Year of the Rabbit, Bobby Watson decided to assemble a 9-piece band for a tribute to the "Rabbit" himself, Johnny Hodges, which was recorded live at Cobi Narita's hospitable loft (now defunct) known as the Jazz Center of New York. The performance of the evocative Hodges feature "Isfahan," named after the Iranian city, was one of the evening's highlights. Utilizing an arrangement similar to the original from Ellington/Strayhorn's acclaimed Far East Suite, Watson alters his usual easily identifiable piercing tone to sound instead eerily like Hodges, a sign of respect for the great altoist, although a more personal approach might have worked just as well or even better. In any case, the Dukish voicings of the other horns, and Mulgrew Miller's Ellington-inspired piano embellishments, are gracefully executed as Watson tenderly plays the opening and closing readings of the theme. Even Watson's fills possess Hodges's characteristic economy and subtle punch. There are no solos to disrupt the prevailing sweet-tempered mood, nor are any needed.

December 10, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe Henderson: Isfahan

In this Ellington/Strayhorn tune, purportedly inspired by the beauty of the Persian city of the same name, we hear the symbiotic pairing of bassist Christian McBride and Joe Henderson on tenor sax creating a beautiful and intimate musical conversation. The song, according to the liner notes, was originally written for Johnny Hodges as a result of influences absorbed while Strayhorn toured Iran with Ellington’s band in 1963. Whatever the inspiration, this exotic-sounding piece is played to perfection utilizing Henderson’s luxuriously deep and throaty sound and McBride's deft accompaniment. Henderson explores the melody's twists and turns in an adventurous solo sprung from his mind’s fertile imagination. McBride supports the master’s endeavors with accomplished walking basslines. When McBride does solo, he leads the tune through his own slightly funky landscape – a hint of a New York meets Baghdad adventure – that for a time takes the Middle Eastern-sounding melody to a more cosmopolitan place. This detour could for some break the spell of exotica, but surprisingly it leads Joe to a subtle call and response with McBride and a satisfying ending.

April 02, 2008 · 0 comments


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