Steve Sedergreen reimagines Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite as a connecting force for diverse musicians

This year’s edition of Stonnington Jazz features many exciting, imaginative and adventurous concepts, and Sunday’s ‘Here and Now: the Far East Suite’ concert certainly falls into this category. Steve Sedergreen shares this excitement, thrillled to take on the role of organising a re-intepretation of Duke Ellington‘s masterpiece and bringing it to 2018. “I’m no Duke Ellington,” he quickly states, “but I love him; as a piano player, I’m very much into the luscious part of the piano and I’m very keen to follow that tradition.”

Steve Sedergreen | Photo: Alexandrena Parker

As wonderful a piano player Duke Ellington may have been, there is a broad consensus that his main instrument was indeed his orchestra; he famously composed having specific soloists in mind, and rearranged his music accordingly whenever they were changes in personnel. Similarly, Steve Sedergreen has the herculean task of arranging the material for two big bands – his own ‘Moments in Time’ band and the Ben Delves Big band featuring an array of musicians: Paul Williamson (tenor and baritone sax), Lachlan Davidson (alto sax), Gianni Marinucci (trumpet), Dave Palmer (trombone), Frank Di Sario (bass), Michael Jordan (drums), Amadou Suso (kora),Noriko Tadano (shamisen), Ron Murray (didgeridoo), Parvyn Singh (sitar and vocals) andWest Papuan activist vocal triothe Black Sistaz .

Anyone familiar with the Far East Suite knows that it doesn’t feature vocal parts or lyrics, so the presence of singers in this project may come as a surprise. “You’ll have to come and see,” Steve Sedergreen says, laughing. “Don’t expect to hear ‘Girl from Ipanema’ or anything. There will be lots of vocal improvising and we’re bringing in elements and tunes from different cultures, particularly from India, Japan, Africa and Australia.”

Steve Sedergreen rehearsing ‘Here and Now: the Far East Suite’ with some of the musicians who take part in the project.

The presence of all these musicians from different cultural backgrounds, bringing instruments and echoes of their own cultures to Ellington’s work is what makes this special, infusing the suite with the elements that inspired it in the first place. Created on the aftermath of the Duke Ellington tour in Japan, India, Syria, Iraq and other parts of Asia an the Middle East – a tour famously (or infamously) sponsored by the US State Department as part of the controversial ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ project – the ‘Far East Suite’ is a perfect example of the use of Asian elements in jazz, without falling into the ethnic or exoticism traps. Ellington himself describes his – and his co-composer and arranger, Billy Strayhorn’s approach, in his memoir, ‘Music is my Mistress’:

“As one who dares to title pieces of music in direct association with countries I visit (…), I must always be on the guard against condescension, for that is the vilest of offenses. And that was why Billy Strayhorn and I, after having been in the Middle East, India, Iran and Ceylon for fifteen weeks, decided not to write any ‘Eastern’ music until we had been away from it for three months – to avoid the re-echoing of those native sounds we had absorbed and the identical retracing of traditional melodies. The titles, nevertheless, were impressions indelibly inscribed in our minds at the moment of exposure to the splendors of the East.”

Using an instrumentation that brings these influences to the foreground is not only a different kind of “retracing” Ellington and Strayorn’s work, but also a testament on the diversity of Melbourne’s music scene. “I’m interested in all sorts of music and looking for brothers and sisters outside the jazz area to work with, using the suite as a connecting force,” says Steve Sedergreen. “I’ve written scores to the instruments that we’re trying to bring together.We are not going to reproduce the Far East Suite but we’re certainly going to play in the spirit of the Far East Suite. That’s why it’s called Here and Now -that’s what jazz is about, it’s about a sense of freedom, aboutbeing free in the moment, about being yourself and finding other ways of problem solving. So while we’re playing most of the Far East Suite, it’s the elements in between that will make this show really interesting. It’s quite an epic adventure.”

Stonnington Jazz presents ‘Here and Now: the Far East Suite’ at Chapel off Chapel on Sunday 20 May