Arguably, Duke Ellington was the greatest musical mind of the 20th century. The Duke was 67 when, in 1966, he and longtime partner Billy Strayhorn (who died the following year) composed and recorded The Far East Suite, a very ambitious project that was greatly influenced by Asian and Middle Eastern music. One of the gems that comprised the suite, "Isfahan," became a standard, although not many jazzmen have been brave enough to tackle the suite in its entirety. But the Asian American Jazz Orchestra, whose members are well-schooled in both jazz and traditional Asian forms, does exactly that on this 1999 recording. Thankfully, the band (which is listed as Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra on this CD) doesn't favor slavish imitation, but rather, has the creativity to interpret the Ellington/Strayhorn masterpiece. While Ellington's orchestra stuck to traditional jazz instruments (horns, piano, bass, etc.), Brown's outfit combines them with various Asian and Middle Eastern instruments, which range from Chinese bamboo flutes to the daf (a Persian/Iranian drum) and the ney (a Middle Eastern flute). Instead of treating "The Far East Suite" like a museum piece, they take some chances with it -- and the end result is an excellent CD that's fresh-sounding instead of clichéd.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson