Thursday, 11 December 2008

After My Time

The years immediately either side of 1950 saw Duke Ellington particularly busy in the studio every December.

Of the pieces he recorded in these Decembers – selections for the Musicraft label or The Liberian Suite, it is the second movement from The Controversial Suite which seems most redolent of the month in which it was recorded and the approaching festive season.

Later (also known as After My Time?)was recorded fifty seven years ago today on 11 December, 1951. Surely it is Ellington’s first essay at film scoring. The clockwork rhythm of the piece initially conjures a sort of dystopian vision of the night before Christmas, sightless dolls and teddy bears – their mouths as tight as sutures – in listless repose amongst the pine needles and discarded candy foil wrappings at the foot of the tree. This incessant and ultimately unnerving tick-tock clarion of the trumpets builds to create a sonic landscape which is straight out of Salvador Dali via Alfred Hitchcock.

This is the music of the spectre at the feast, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, the nerveless white hand beneath the black cloak outstretched and pointing remorselessly towards our impending mortality, Paul Gonsalves’ solo, Scrooge’s lament at his own graveside. From the dissonant cords and Ellington’s discordant fills at the piano to the steady building of the crescendo, it is a striking piece of work as the clock on the wall is striking even now.

I read somewhere – and annoyingly cannot now remember where – that George Handy took some part in writing this piece. It is overwhelmingly, though, as the title suggests, largely a note from Ellington to himself for the threads of thought - the walking bass line which surfaced again in the composition La Plus Belle Africaine, for instance - which he was to pick up... later.

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