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October 13, 2016: Isfahan

Published onOct 13, 2016
October 13, 2016: Isfahan

Not the city, although I imagine, given its history, that it is spectacular. No, I mean the Duke Ellington standard. One of my favorites that seems to come up on shuffle more often than it should, thank the algorithm.

Written and composed by Duke and Billy Strayhorn during (or, depending on which history you read, just before) a world tour in 1963 and recorded as part of the misnamed “Far East Suite,” Isfahan is one of the most sublime melodies ever put to music.

What makes the composition and indeed the entire suite special is that despite the name, it’s not appropriative. Duke and Strayhorn were inspired by the places they visited and people they met on their tour, but they didn’t try to imitate the music they must have heard. Instead, confident as ever, the duo applied the foreignness of the experience to the mature style they had developed together over the previous three decades.

The result is a unique suite of music that is at once both familiar and uncomfortably exotic. Blue Pepper is a standout for its bluesy chords backed by a dizzying, driving rhythm that almost sounds like the theme song to an action movie set in the Middle East. Almost, yet it holds together thanks to typically strong solo work and never quite strays into pastiche.

But Isfahan is the gem of them all. Certainly of the suite, arguably of the Ellington/Strayhorn collaboration, and maybe even of the entire postwar, pre-Miles American jazz canon. Its smooth, soaring, sentimental saxophone line was written specifically for the talents of Johnny Hodges, the Orchestra’s legendary and longtime soloist. Nothing in the rest of the Ellington/Strayhorn oeuvre quite approaches the standard version of Isfahan, not even the rare alternate arrangement of Take the ‘A’ Train with Duke’s brilliant piano solo from the Centennial recordings.

The Suite was the last record Billy Strayhorn would compose before succumbing to cancer in 1967. The next album the Orchestra recorded was “And His Mother Called Him Billy,” which is a genius work born of despair, but also marks the end of an era. Duke would continue to move his music forward in the twilight of his long, brilliant career, but he would never match the beauty of Isfahan.

Strayhorn was a part of Ellington’s soul that he could never decide whether to keep for himself or share with the world. The two had an intimate, but not always even relationship. Biographers retrospectively criticized Ellington for being paternalistic, overbearing, and for taking too much credit for Strayhorn’s work. Despite this, the pair worked together across three decades, and today Strayhorn is widely recognized as a legend in his own right, thanks in part to Duke’s many tributes to him.

Indeed, you get the sense that Billy, or Bill, as his mother called him, didn’t mind Duke’s rough edges. He may have even fed off them. Strayhorn was a classically trained virtuoso with a rebellious streak who needed a partner to simultaneously reign him in and set him free. He found just that in Duke, and never questioned it too much. For his part, Ellington knew talent when he saw it, and understood how to infuse it with his own genius without trampling it — even if it meant he was sometimes the undeserving center of attention.

Isfahan is the purest expression of their combined brilliance that we have. Even in the first few bars, Duke’s restrained exoticism and unmatched talent for mood combine with Strayhorn’s refined compositional style and signature melancholy to form the perfect standard. Once the song starts, it doesn’t matter who composed it, or who deserves the credit. All that matters is that somehow, some way, the pair made it past difference and strife and decline and comeback to this pinnacle. May we be so lucky to visit Isfahan again.

By Gabriel Stein on October 14, 2016.

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Exported from Medium on October 22, 2020.

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