Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Duke Ellington's Afro-Eurasian Eclipse: Chinoiserie (Overview)

At long, much-overdue last! This chart has been in the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra's book since the 1990's (we know this because they recorded the chart on a CD in the mid-1990's!), but for some reason they haven't included it in the Essentially Ellington set list before. The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse should be a clear demonstration to anyone with ears to hear that Duke Ellington never stopped moving forward. In his seventies, after the breakup of the Beatles (and yes, Duke recorded Beatles songs, too), after the death of Johnny Hodges, after the departure of Ray Nance, after American popular music had been completely overtaken by rock, the greatest mind in American music continued driving forward. The whole suite, and especially this tune, rocks so hard that it is often difficult to believe that the man driving the band forward is the same pianist who wrote Black And Tan Fantasy forty-five years earlier. But there is not much other way to describe it: This is a borderline rock chart written by Duke Ellington, performed by Duke Ellington And His Orchestra, and featuring late-era Ellington tenor giant Harold Ashby (who was also a pretty solid flute player, too!) rocking out (and seemingly smacking his reed with his tongue—what Duke refers to as “scraping off a tiny bit of the charisma of his Chinoiserie”) while the band drives forward. As Duke notes, of course, all of that follows “our piano player,” who initially performs a “riki-tiki” (an erudite Kipling reference? I really don't know...). And note Duke's typically sharp wit in referencing Didjeridoo (actually the second movement of The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse), as he mentions that “this automatically throws us either Down Under [i.e., Australia] and/or Out Back [i.e., the Australian desert interior], and from that point of view it's most improbable that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom. Uh, Harold Ashby has been inducted into the responsibility and the obligation of possibly scraping off a tiny bit of the charisma of his Chinoiserie, immediately after our piano player has completed his riki-tiki.” Incidentally, the word “Chinoiserie” is French in origin and means “China-esque”. I don't know what that has to do with Australia. Finally, notwithstanding nearly fifteen years of listening to this album, I have never in all that time been able to figure out whether Duke is trying to make some real point by quoting Marshall McLuhan from the University of Toronto, or whether he is just laughing at him; my best guess is that it's the latter.

Duke made several live recordings of Chinoiserie. As with Isfahan from The Far East Suite and The Star-Crossed Lovers/Such Sweet Thunder/Sonnet To Hank Cinq from Such Sweet Thunder: The Shakespearean Suite, Duke chose a particular track from his suite to take on the road and left the balance to the studio recording.

If you enjoy The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, then you might also enjoy such other late-era Ellington suites as The Majesty Of God (The Third Sacred Concert), The Goutelas Suite, The Togo Brava Suite, The UWIS Suite, and Fragmented Suite For Piano And Bass. If you enjoy this suite specifically for its exotic flavors, try also listening to Duke's other international tone parallels: The Far East Suite and The Latin American Suite (The Mexican Suite in early performances).

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