3. The Far East Suite (RCA, 1967)
This one is first on most people’s lists of Ellington’s late masterpieces. It’s hard to quarrel with The Far East Suite—except for the fact that its subject matter is mostly the Middle East, not the Far East. (Ellington and his orchestra had toured the Arab world and the Indian subcontinent for the U.S. State Department in 1963.) That’s how we get “Isfahan,” the Johnny Hodges vehicle—named for a city in Iran—that is often regarded as Billy Strayhorn’s greatest composition. (He had actually written it years before and titled it “Elf,” but it was repurposed when the band needed to fill time on the LP.) The Far East Suite contains two other Strayhorn marvels: the simultaneously delicate and solid “Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah)” and the Harry Carney feature “Agra.” Not to be outdone, Ellington wrote the stirring opener “Tourist Point of View,” the hard-swinging “Depk,” the nearly soul-jazz “Blue Pepper,” and the suite’s one true excursion into the Far East, the piano feature “Ad Lib on Nippon.” It really is an embarrassment of riches. Two years before, the Pulitzer Prize committee had rejected an endorsement for a special award for Ellington; The Far East Suite, if they were listening, surely made them sorry.