Correspondence, Illustrated: “Isfahan”

Rifftides reader Mike Paulson writes:

Looked up this clip on YouTube after watching Scott Robinson play “Isfahan” with Martin Wind at The Seasons the other evening.

I am amazed at how timeless this arrangement is. Hard to improve on perfection. Not sure why Duke had to hold the sheet music for Johnny Hodges.

Ellington and Billy Strayhorn got the inspiration for “Isfahan” during the band’s tour of the Middle East in 1963. It became a part of The Far East Suite, which Ellington did not record until 1966. An educated guess is that in the 1964 performance—not 1965, as YouTube labels it—captured on the clip, Ellington or Strayhorn had recently written it and Hodges was giving the tune one of is first hearings, if not the first. If that is the case, his needing the lead sheet for reference is not surprising. It was not unusual for Ellington to have the band perform new music when the ink was barely dry.
The Scott Robinson performance of “Isfahan” that Mr. Paulson mentioned is covered in the Rifftides October 18 review two exhibits down.

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  1. says

    The Duke held the sheet in front of Mr. Hodges’s nose because “Isfahan” was a brand new composition, and Johnny had no chance to rehearse it.
    As one can see here: The Duke was so eager to hear at once (!) what he had just composed, that he (kindly, but determined) forced his musicians to sightread, even during a TV broadcast.

  2. A. Alyce Claerbaut says

    The Far East Suite is a great work. However, Ellington and Strayhorn
    never made it to the Far East—they got as far as Jordan but had to
    return because of the assassination of President John Kennedy. Far East trip was sponsored by the State Department.
    In terms of the music, “Isfahan” was written singularly by Billy Strayhorn months before the tour to the Far East. It was titled “ELF” and was a Johnny Hodges feature. The song was retitled “Isfahan” for the recording and at that time co-credited to Ellington as well as Strayhorn. “Isfahan” was not recorded as “ELF” but it is copyrighted as “ELF”. All of the liner notes refer to “Isfahan” as “fomerly known as ELF” and the title “ELF” was actually used in the Fred Hersch tribute recording “Passion FLower”. Many other recordings include a parenthetical alternate title “ELF” in their recordings of “Isfahan