The creation of Ellington’s extended work was recently celebrated as one of fifty Great Moments in Jazz by John Fordham of The Guardian. His piece begins…
"The death of Duke Ellington's beloved mother in 1935 drew from the great composer a work that provided the first serious indication that his gifts could not be confined to the glittering multifaceted miniatures with which he had made his name.
"Reminiscing in Tempo, 12 minutes long, reflected the state of contemplative melancholy into which Ellington, then aged 36, had fallen following his bereavement. Given the technical limitations of the day, it had to be spread over all four sides of a pair of 10-inch 78rpm discs, and perhaps the inevitable discontinuity of the listening experience lay behind the mixed critical response it provoked in usually sympathetic quarters. With the benefit of subsequent developments, we can, of course, listen to it as a single unbroken piece and can therefore appreciate the subtle fluctuations of mood as it flows gently, and with a purposeful absence of rhetorical flourishes, through a sequence of carefully supported solos by Ellington's great soloists, including the trumpeter Rex Stewart, the trombonist Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, the clarinetist Barney Bigard, the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and the baritone saxophonist Harry Carney.
"Ellington was on the road, undertaking a series of one-nighters, when he heard the news of his mother's demise, and he stayed up all night in his Pullman car, "all caught up in the rhythm and motion of the train dashing through the south", to lay the foundations of his musical tribute. The interlude for Ellington's unaccompanied piano allows the composer to evoke the sensation of a mind gently slipping in and out of grief. With this piece, he articulated the extent of an ambition that ranged far beyond his reputation as the leader of a popular big band."
The idea that, in fact, this piece can be incorporated by dint of its conception amongst Ellington’s locomotive pieces is fascinating and testament to how Proust-like the composer drew incessantly upon the memory and direct experience of everything about him.
The more I listen to this piece, the more I am moved by it, that sweet, cupped cry of the trumpet articulating plaintively the word ‘momma’ like a motherless child.
John Fordham’s 50 Great Moments in Jazz has reached number forty nine. You can find the entire series – which comprises a wonderful primer for those new to jazz or a bone of contention, perhaps, in talk over dinner for more experienced hands – here.
And for more on Ellington and Proust, there is a lovely piece from one of my favourite blogs here.