Album: Liberian Suite
Artist: Duke Ellington
Genre: Big Band
For those who may not know, Liberia is a country on Africa’s West Coast. Its motto: “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.” Its origin: the freedmen who left America to start a new life prior to the Civil War. And its centennial theme song: a 24-minute tone poem composed by Duke Ellington in 1947 known as the Liberian Suite.
The commission was Ellington’s first large-scale project since Black, Brown and Beige. Yet that piece’s polarizing reception was still fresh in his mind. As a result, Ellington reined in his ambitions, determined not to repeat the same “mistakes” twice — never again would he attempt such a grand statement.
The Liberian Suite contains very simple, impressionistic themes (i.e., the movements are titled “Dance Nos. 1 – 5”). The music, on the other hand, is some of the most modernistic of Ellington’s career. He fuses the classical influences of Grieg and Gershwin with bebop-inspired orchestral arrangements. On top of that, he adds traces of tribal drumming and Moroccan-tinged melodies. But the real kicker is that he prefaces everything with “I Like the Sunrise,” a proud and inspiring introduction sung by Al Hibbler that ranks among the finest vocal jazz moments of Ellington’s career.
As far as longform compositions go, the Liberian Suite is no Black, Brown and Beige (and it’s certainly no “Harlem”). But as far as musical centennial celebrations go, it’s one of the best there ever was. Even if it might not stand among Ellington’s all-time masterworks, it’s still a stunning reminder that he was an all-time master.