According to Mark Tucker in The Duke Ellington Reader
, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse was a suite composed by Ellington for the Monterey Jazz Festival of 1970. The Duke kicks off the first element of the suite, 'Chinoiserie' with a verbal explanation.
"Last year about this time", he says, "we premièred a new suite titled Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. And of course the title was inspired by a statement made by Mr Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto. Mr McLuhan says that the whole world is going oriental, and that no one will be able to retain his or her identity, not even the orientals. And of course we travel around the world a lot, and in the last five or six years we, too, have noticed this thing to be true. So, as a result, we have done a sort of thing, a parallel or something, and we'd like to play a little piece of it for you."
Of course, Duke.
Ellington gave the same speech when 'Chinoiserie' was played live. Stanley Dance informs us in the liner notes that: "Audiences... were never quite sure whether they were being put on or upstaged." No wonder. The Duke says, enigmatically: "... it's most improbable that anyone will ever know exactly who is enjoying the shadow of whom." I presume that the word 'shadow' is a reference to the eclipse of the title, and the implications of one body obscuring another. Who is enjoying the shadow? Who indeed.
Ellington doesn't take Marshall McLuhan's theory seriously. He uses it as a pretext for playing a none too subtle practical joke on his listeners. OK, the whole world is going oriental, and no-one will be able to retain his or her identity. How might that sound?
The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse is really a suite of five songs, not eight: 'Chinoiserie', 'Didjeridoo', 'Afrique', 'Gong' and 'Tang'. True to McLuhan's vision, these songs have no discernible sense of identity. Three more songs are dragged in to complete the work. 'Acht O'Clock Rock' was first recorded in 1967, and appears in the Ellington playlist any number of times prior to the appearance of 'Afro-Eurasian Eclipse'. 'True' is, in fact, 'Tell Me The Truth', from the first Sacred Concert. 'Hard Way' is a straightforward blues. I'm sure I've heard it somewhere else in the Ellington repertoire. Why on earth did Ellington select these apparently incongruous numbers to pad out the suite? Presumably because they might be said to conform to McLuhan's concept of the loss of identity: each of them is instantly forgettable.
The songs were recorded in 1971, but the suite was not released until 1979, more evidence that it was never intended to be viewed as a serious work. This hasn't stopped many people who might have known better being taken in. On release, the album was given a glowing review by Gary Giddins (the review is reproduced in full in The Duke Ellington Reader
): "... its long awaited release should be cause for rejoicing throughout the land." The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD (Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings)
is only slightly less effusive, proclaiming the work to be: "World music of a very high order."
Ellington is still laughing now. Giddins, Morton and Cook might have paused to consider the full implications of the word 'Chinoiserie' before committing themselves on The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. This definition comes from Wikipedia:
"Chinoiserie is often expressed in the decorative arts of Europe, and its expression in architecture was entirely in the field of whimsical follies."
'Whimsical folly'? That'll do for me.
Too fanciful? Oh, I don't know. The alternative is that Ellington meant this music to be taken seriously, and that would not do.