Late Ellington is some of my favorite music ever made. There’s a depth, sophistication, complexity and richness that it’s hard to find anywhere else, coupled with a narrative quality that I find incredibly beguiling. Crouch mentions a few of my favorite Duke records from the late period, including …And His Mother Called Him Bill, a wrenching recording of songs by Billy Strayhorn, Duke’s longtime collaborator, recorded just after Strayhorn’s death; New Orleans Suite, featuring the blistering “Blues for New Orleans,” one of the last recordings made by saxophonist Johnny Hodges (the audio sample gives you a tiny taste of Hodges’s luscious sound); and my personal favorite, The Far East Suite, which manages to capture the musical and cultural feel of the East (actually the Near and Middle East primarily) without falling into cliches or parroting of Eastern sounds.
Here are two of my favorite pieces from that suite. Tourist Point of View is, to me, an incredibly vivid and accurate depiction of what it’s like to arrive in an exotic city like Kathmandu or Delhi, full of jangling sounds, startlement and incomprehensible conversation, but seductively hinting at a sinuous beauty just below the surface. Mount Harissa, a tour-de-force for tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, is named after a mountain in Lebanon, a country once renowned for its beauty and lush greenery, and it captures the stately beauty of a cedar-clad mountain above an ancient city.