Thursday, October 06, 2016

CD Review: Slavic Soul Party! - Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Slavic Soul Party!
Plays Duke Ellington's Far East Suite

Sometimes, making a comparison between a tribute/re-imagining album and its source material can cause some serious distraction, especially when the composers in question are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. (And especially when the reviewer isn't initially familiar with the original material.) The whole angle of the piece starts to be shaped before the words start hitting the page: What's more important, the way the new version compares to the original, or whether the new one stands on its own?

It's senseless to take the former approach, since anyone will fall like a house of cards when stacked up to Ellington's original. But a little bit of background is in order. Duke and his band participated in a "jazz diplomacy" mission in 1963 when they traveled through Middle East, South Asia and the Balkans, to now-treacherous places like Syrian, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. Members of the band would later grouse that they played less for the everyday people of these countries and more for the high-ranking officials.

Ironically, they never actually made it to the Far East proper, as the tour was halted after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of that year. But the trip was enough to inspire the writing of Ellington and Strayhorn, who created a total of nine tracks for the 1966 album. It would be some of the last music Strayhorn would write before loosing a battle with esophageal cancer a year later.

Slavic Soul Party! originates in New York City, the product of a group of musicians affiliated with the experimental jazz scene who go back to the music of Balkan brass bands, injecting it with the adventure they've developed in their own circle of music. Their heritage, so to speak, brings Far East Suite full circle, back to the music that inspired it. Ellington's use of a full reed and brass section brought the music West. SSP!, on the other hand has only one reed player (Peter Hess, who doubles on saxophones and clarinet), five brass (two trumpets, two trombones, tuba), two drummers and an accordionist. The last instrument is particularly key in creating this Balkan feel, most notably in "Amad" and the closing "Ad Lib On Nippon," where Peter Stan gets some guttural noises out of his squeezebox.

"Isfahan" originally served as a feature for Johnny Hodges' regal alto sax. That role is taken by the trumpet (either John Carlson or Kenny Warren) which plays over a slinky beat  accustomed to a New Orleans marching band. That feeling pops up throughout many songs, especially when Ron Caswell's tuba plays some funky bass lines. He and his lower brass mates get pushed to the front of "Bluebird of Delhi" giving the song a more sinister feeling that contrasts with the light clarinet part (intact from Ellington) that represents the bird. Later on, the band adds some klezmer color to "Depk" though Caswell still keeps the Big Easy at arm's length.

This recording was made at Barbรจs in Brooklyn in front of an audience, which reacts enthusiastically to the performance. It's easy to see why: the energy never wavers, even when things get more reflection ("Agra"). In the end that means prior knowledge of Far East Suite is not required before checking out Slavic Soul Party!'s homage. Don't be surprised if it inspires curious listeners to search for the original, though, to prolong the pleasure.

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