Slavic Soul Party! Credit: Monkey Dart Photos

The consensus is that composer, bandleader, and pianist Duke Ellington did his best work in the 30s and 40s, but he achieved so many moments of brilliance in the decades that followed that there’s no good reason to cling to that thinking—few 20th-century musicians adapted and grew like he did while retaining a clear artistic identity. One of my all-time favorite Ellington works is The Far East Suite, recorded in December 1966 and released early the next year. It was inspired by an international tour that his orchestra took in 1963 as part of a long-standing cultural-diplomacy program by the U.S. State Department. The ensemble performed in India, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, and Sri Lanka, but the assassination of President Kennedy ended the tour prematurely, canceling planned stops in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus.

The music, mostly cowritten with Ellington’s composing partner Billy Strayhorn, doesn’t explicitly mirror the traditions of the regions the band visited, but they clearly inspired it—nothing else in Ellington’s vast oeuvre sounds quite like The Far East Suite. It contains some of his most rhythmically thrilling and triumphantly dissonant tunes—it’s a feast of sound replete with meaty counterpoint, sumptuous harmony, and breathtaking melody. “Isfahan” is one of the group’s greatest and most enduring ballads—it stands tall next to any of Ellington’s early classics, and holds up well to interpretation (even though by necessity any reimagining will lack the stunning performance of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges on the original recording).

On first glance this suite might seem like a strange choice of material for superb New York Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party!, but their recording of it, released today on Ropeadope, honors the tunes and spirit of the Ellington opus while adding their own flavor. Because the Ellington band’s State Department tour never made it to Turkey or Greece—key sources of inspiration for SSP!—we can’t know how sounds from those places might’ve worked their way into The Far East Suite. But Slavic Soul Party!’s album allows us to hear one way that players conversant in traditions from that part of the world might refract Ellington’s music through their prism. The performance’s most distinctive quality is the drumming—group founder Matt Moran plays the double-headed tapan, producing a forceful, prodding sound that insistently embellishes the central pulse, while Chris Stromquist plays a snare with plenty of press rolls. Together they give the music a driving, martial propulsion.

Slavic Soul Party!’s five-strong brass section plays with outsize exuberance, deftly re-creating the Ellington band’s muscular charts with significantly fewer players. Reedist Peter Hess shines on clarinet (he also plays a variety of saxophones), getting plenty of solo space and frequently elucidating the trickiest melodies, while accordionist Peter Stan lays down the chord patterns with woozy warmth or pumping energy. Below you can check out the band’s raucous version of “Blue Pepper,” a tune that was wildly funky even in its earliest iteration. The Slavic Soul Party! album won’t likely change your ideas about the original recording, but it sure proves how great these vibrant tunes remain five decades later.
Today’s playlist:

Ja-Man All Stars, In the Dub Zone (Blood & Fire)
Steve Lacy, Shots (Musica)
Luigi Nono, Volume 1: Voices of Protest (Mode)
Allman Brothers Band, Allman Brothers Band (Capricorn)
John Lewis, A Milanese Story/Animal Dance (Collectables/Atlantic)