This is probably the recording that convinced me that there is life after rock and pop. Nonetheless, it took some time for me to adjust to it. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Duke Ellington's public persona is of the big band leader writing popular and populist tunes. 'New Orleans Suite' shocked me out of this notion. Occasionally, the sound of the big band appears, but more often than not this music defies classification, and perhaps that's the whole point. Ellington is one of the greats because he cannot be pigeon-holed.
This is one of my favourite Ellington records. We do not often hear the organ or the flute in his orchestra and they are two instruments that, to my taste, work wonderfully well in jazz bands when played well, as they are here. Wild Bill Davis provides a great deal of the thrills in the languid opening song 'Blues for New Orleans'. Other stand-outs for me are 'Thanks For The Beautiful Land On The Delta', 'Second Line', 'Portrait Of Sidney Bechet' and 'Portrait Of Mahalia Jackson' (flute to the fore). There is a compelling sense of urgency about the whole recording. Even when it appears, as in the case of 'Portrait Of Wellman Braud' that Ellington has dealt his players a hand that is just a little bit too tricky (pity the poor bass player!), and the whole house of cards is about to topple, everything is pulled together. Listen closely to the last song, 'Portrait Of Mahalia Jackson' and you will hear all sorts of weird noises going on in the background, and yet the overall effect, to my ears at least, is majestic and betrays the sense of melancholy that affects so much of Ellington's music.
Johnny Hodges, for so long a star turn of the Ellington orchestra and such a key part of its sound, died during the recording of 'New Orleans Suite' and, in a strange sort of way, this sets it apart. Rather than being a vehicle for soloists, these songs are ensemble pieces, and all the better for it.