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In a Mellotone (1940)

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“In a Mellotone” is a perfect example of how Duke could take the chord changes of an old standard (in this case, the 1919 tune “Rose Room”), write a simple riff ..., and then spice it up with great solos....

- Chris Tyle

AKAIn a Mellow Tone
Rank 140
Music Duke Ellington
Lyrics Milt Gabler

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra introduced this standard in 1940. Although he did have three tunes in the charts that year, “Mellotone” wasn’t one of them.


More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

The period of 1939-1942 is regarded by many critics to be the golden era of Duke Ellington’s career. He had a band comprised of sterling talent, and Duke himself was turning out a stellar grouping of original compositions for the orchestra such as “Ko-Ko,” “Jack the Bear,” “Warm Valley,” “Sepia Panorama,” and “In a Mellotone.”

What makes Ellington performances such great triumphs, however, is not just the tune or the arrangement but how he utilized the soloists of the orchestra so perfectly within his arrangements. “In a Mellotone” is a perfect example of how Duke could take the chord changes of an old standard (in this case, the 1919 tune “Rose Room”), write a simple riff (what is now considered the “head” of the tune), and then spice it up with great solos (the original recording contains one of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges’ premier solos, played in “double-time.”) Undoubtedly the reason this number has achieved standard status is not due to the chords or the melody but what Ellington did with it originally and how jazz players reacted to his concept. (Ellington ends the arrangement with a clever “lift” from Louis Armstrong’s first solo on record, “Chimes Blues,” recorded by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923.)


More on Milt Gabler at JazzBiographies.com

As was the case with many Ellington compositions, words were added a later date. It’s not clear who did write the lyrics, but record producer Milt Gabler (of the indie jazz label Commodore and later Decca Records), gets co-composer credit.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Recommendations for This Tune
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Erroll Garner
Polygram Records
Original recording 1954

Pianist Garner offers a subtle, extremely swinging trio performance here. The arrangement is tight and his solo builds from elegant single notes to dramatic block chords.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
Polygram Records
Original recording 1957

Fitzgerald offers one of her most swinging and impressive performances here, which is no small thing given her track record! She swings the melody with relaxed assurance and then offers a classic scat solo. For good measure, Ben Webster contributes some irresistible saxophone playing.

Gerry Mulligan
The Complete Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster
Polygram Records
Original recording 1959

Saxophonist Webster appears again here, sharing reed duties with Gerry Mulligan on baritone. They both play with abundant, relaxed creativity, punctuated by a fabulous piano solo by Jimmy Rowles.

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington
The Great Summit: The Master Takes
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1961

Though there are multiple soloists here, Ellington and Armstrong (on trumpet) unsurprisingly take center stage. Ellington’s own playing here offers a glimpse into why he was such a formative influence on Thelonious Monk.

Milt Jackson Quartet
Soul Route
Original recording 1983

Vibraphonist Jackson teams up here with some of his most valued collaborators, pianist Gene Harris, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Mickey Roker, for what may well be the most hard-swinging “In A Mellotone” ever recorded.

- Noah Baerman

Tony Bennett
Hot & Cool: Bennett Sings Ellington
1999 Columbia 63668
Original recording 1999
No other vocalist can deliver an Ellington song like Tony Bennett, and there is no better song to illustrate that point. The singer recreates a time and a place with mellow tone and cool demeanor.
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross
The Hottest New Group in Jazz
1996 Legacy Recordings 64933
Original recording 1959
Tight harmonies and loose lyrics typified LH&R. Annie Ross takes the lead on this vocal deconstruction that contains all the swingin’ pyrotechnics and flawless technique you expect from the trio.
Jimmy Smith
Bashin'-The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith
1997 Verve 314539061
Original recording 1962
Smith debuts at Verve with a bang backed by the Oliver Nelson Orchestra. On this piece the horns gain momentum, the orchestra swells, and Smith’s organ cuts through it all to settle into a bluesy groove.
Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli
In a Mellow Tone
Concord Records

This song seems designed for two guitars, especially played by virtuosos Alden and Pizzarelli the Elder. What a delight!

- Ben Maycock

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