Mood Indigo: 15 Great Ellington Ballads

Sure, every right-thinking human likes to get slapped around by “Cotton Tail,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” and “Braggin’ In Brass.” But one of my prized possessions is a mixed tape that unites a scad of Duke Ellington’s softer scenarios. Our hero had a penetrating way with setting a somber mood, as well as myriad approaches towards getting the job done. I particularly like the wordless vocal style applied to jewels such as “On A Turquoise Cloud” and “Transblucency.” Here are 15 ballads that should transport you to “other planes of there,” as Ellington fan Sun Ra once put it. It’s all in celebration of the maestro’s 112th birthday on April 29.

1. In A Sentimental Mood, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse!)

The mild dissonance of the pianist’s opening lick, the piercing sense of loss brought by the saxophonist – here’s a great start to a wistful episode.

2. Warm Valley, The Blanton/Webster Band (RCA)

Johnny Hodges couldn’t sound any more inviting as he distributes his heart to all within earshot.

3. On A Turquoise Cloud, The Duke: Essential Collection 1927-62 (Columbia)

Disturbingly gorgeous, with Kay Davis chanteusing her way through the theme.

4. Isfahan, The Far East Suite (RCA)

Billy Strayhorn set his sights on eerie reverie when he penned this nugget, and Hodges makes the melody as  dreamy as possible.

5. Solitude, The Duke (Columbia)

The full band saunters through it with aplomb, but the Ellington solo intro on this version brings the forlorn feelings front and center.

6. Fleurette Africaine, Money Jungle (Blue Note) 

The experimentalist tinge was in full effect when Ellington connected with Charles Mingus and Max Roach for this trio session. Spare and seductive, it brims with the drummer’s tapping and the bassist’s inspired noodles.

7. Awful Sad, Early Ellington (Decca/GRP)

It moves a tad faster than a ballad might, but it conjures regret again and again. Don’t forget Jenny Scheinman‘s version.

8. A Lull At Dawn, Caravan (Giants of Jazz)

A moment of reflection before the day begins…or is it as the night ends?

9. Lotus BlossomAnd His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA)

Strays moves into comtemplationville, a place where he definitely knows the lay of the land.

10. Creole Love Call, Love Songs (Columbia)

Saucy trumpet, stately tempo and angelic trilling from Kay Davis. Is this a foxtrot?

11. Azure, The Ultimate Collection, (Burning Fire)

A deep atmosphere, no doubt. Substitute Ella’s sublime guitar/voice rendition if you must. “Always haunted by the dream I own…”

12. Dusk, Never No Lament: The Blanton/Webster Band (RCA)

Eloquence and poise are neck and neck on this one, cut in the spring of 1940.

13. Passion Flower, Live At the Blue Note (Blue Note)

This version, for the way the horns float behind Hodges as he wafts through Strayhorn’s homage to romance, and for the flourish at the finale.

14. A Hundred Dreams Ago, Piano In the Foreground (Columbia)

It glistens with a wealth of emotions, from the mournful to the mysterious. The entire record is enchanting.

15.  Melancholia, Piano Reflections (Blue Note)

With his bassist bowing right along with him, Ellington lets his moony side take over. Graceful and gorgeous.

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