"Duke Ellington was just the kind of American the whole world could love. President Kennedy realized this when he dispatched Ellington on a tour of the Middle and Near East in 1963. With Duke as musical ambassador, Kennedy hoped to win the hearts and minds of the peoples of the East. Dutifully, Duke Ellington led his caravan of mighty musicians through the exotic cities of Amman, Baghdad, Ceylon, Tehran, Bombay, and Ankra. They performed the classic Ellington songs, all the while absorbing the sounds of what Ellington described as "a world upside down." Rather than trying to reproduce the music they heard on their journey through the East, Ellington and Strayhorn "let it roll around, undergo a chemical change, and then seep out on paper."
By opening The Far East Suite with a song entitled "Tourist Point of View," Ellington makes it clear that the album’s Eastern sounds are no more than the musical impressions of two Westerners. "Tourist Point of View" is fresh, dramatic, and mysterious—as the East always appears to unfamiliar eyes. With a nimble hand on the cymbals, the drumming of newcomer Rufus Jones is a key ingredient on the record—adding layers of Eastern infused polyrhythms to the mix. Johnny Hodges is spectacular on all of the album's nine original compositions, but nowhere is his playing more lush and evocative as on the beautiful "Isfahan." The song is one of the greatest examples of the writing genius of Ellington and Strayhorn. The fact that "Isfahan" was recorded in only two takes demonstrates the deep empathy of the entire band to the musical visions of Ellington/Strayhorn.
And when the individual musicians step out, every solo they take adds perfectly to the distinct vibe of each song. On the hard swinging "Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues), Johnny Hodges rocks the house with a surprisingly mean tone. Jimmy Hamilton’s graceful clarinet playing is showcased throughout "Ad Lib On Nippon," an 11-minute Ellington composition inspired by his many visits to Japan. This lengthy track gives Ellington room to really stretch out on piano, highlighting his often overlooked playing. (...) Duke Ellington and his musical tribe "didn't want to do anything others had done before" when they set out to make The Far East Suite. The phenomenally accessible yet unprecedented music that they recorded over three days in 1966 is proof of just how brilliantly they succeeded.