This is pretty old news, but then again, no one’s ever accused me of being on top of things. According to Variety, Morgan Freeman has been cast to play Duke Ellington in an upcoming film, The Jazz Ambassadors, which will portray Ellington’s orchestra in Iraq during the 1963 coup led by the CIA. Supposedly, as Duke’s band toured certain parts of the world, the CIA had planted spies in his entourage. This is perhaps not without truth, as US State Department official Tom Simons is working with the producers. He traveled with Ellington’s orchestra during at the time. The story’s dramatic interest comes from whether or not Ellington knew of the CIA’s plans and the operatives in his band.
Freeman will also co-produce the film, which is directed by Antoine Fuqua (King Arthur, Training Day, The Replacement Killers).
Hopefully, Ellington’s person and music will be done justice. I trust Freeman; I’m on the fence about Fuqua; and I’ve a sneaking feeling that jazz may take a back seat to the political focus of the film. Fingers crossed, folks.
The most fruitful part of Ellington's travels to the Middle East, though, is perhaps the (mistitled) Far East Suite. The suite's language and textures are exotic but not corny; the songs are impressions, but they aren't reductive. And the playing is superb. Saxmen Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves sound warm, broad and buttery at their lyrical best here. Drummer Rufus "Speedy" Jones made his debut with Ellington's band on Far East Suite and propels the group with some tasty cymbal rhythms throughout. Ellington's piano voicings are clustery, intriguiging and seem to open up a world (or perhaps transport us to another half of the world) of sonic landscapes.