Isfahan was first released in the late days of Strayhorn’s life and career. He had written it years before and entitled it Elf, but the piece was reused for Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite. The orchestra had toured through the Near and Middle East in 1963, came back to the states with many impressions and decided to use this inspiration by recording this suite. The music of the Far East Suite is clearly programmatic; nevertheless, it does without stereotypes. The writers succeeded in translating Eastern sounds into Western idiom. “The Far East Suite is generally seen as one of the highlights of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration, and rightfully so” (van de Leur, p.167).
Strayhorn’s already existing tune was renamed Isfahan after the Persian capital and added to the program: an alto feature tailored for Johnny Hodges with his expressive, absorbing sound. The alto saxophonist leads the orchestra through this walking ballad in Db (the form is AB, 32 bars). He begins with a pickup, a descending Dbmaj7 arpeggio, starting and ending on the major seventh Dbb. Then the melody jumps up to an A, the suspended tonic of the following Bb7 chord, resolves to Bb, and ends in an Eb7 chord in bar 3. The harmonic progression is Db–Bb7–Eb7. This 4-bar motif comes again, sequenced: starting with an arpeggio in Amaj7, which is a tritone-substitute of the preceding secondary dominant Eb7, going to the dominant Ab7 and back to Db. Walter van de Leur describes the theme development in these words: “The central melodic idea of Isfahan is the downward unfolding major seventh chord in the alto. Strayhorn intelligently exploits the enharmonic duality of the line. Starting an interval lower in measure 4, the ab-f-db retrospectively sounds as the upper part of the Bbbmaj7 that appears in bar 5” (van de Leur, p.170).
In the second half of “A”, we find a 3-bar motif that will be repeated and sequenced two times, so it makes a musical sentence. The harmonic progression is IIm7b5-V7-Im in Fm, then the same in Gm, then the phrase is augmented and goes to Fmaj. To modulate back to the key of Db for the second part of the song, Strayhorn choses chromatically descending major chords.
The “B” section begins just like “A”, with the same first 8 bars, except for a Db7 in bar 7 and 8 with a #11 in the melody. The subdominant Gb follows, then over C7#9, F7#9 and Bb7 we come back to the original opening phrase, this time underlaid with a II7-V7-I back “home”.
In the original arrangement for the Ellington orchestra, the backgrounds play in important role. Especially the reed section has some very elaborate lines, which support the harmony through a counterpoint structure, but also add to the principal melody as embellishments.