DUKE ELLINGTON / “Duke In A Mellotone Mixtape”
So, Thanksgiving day Kenneth, the older of my two younger brothers, asks me a serious question. “Do you think daddy could dance?”
He was showing someone a picture of my father that Kenneth had on his cell phone, the same picture Kenneth had sent to me the previous day. After throwing my mind into reverse and flipping through snapshots of the past, I came up with zip. “I don’t know, man. I don’t think so. I mean I never saw him dancing.”
It’s a funny question for two men in their sixties to discuss about their long deceased father: could he dance? I believe my five children have seen me dancing at one time or another, even if no more than prancing along at a second-line, and I know my two brothers can dance their butts off, or, at the very least, used to dance like mad; you ought to see, Keith, the youngest of we three brothers—he’s a cardiologist—you ought to see him do the stanky leg.
My mother was a minister’s daughter and a Sunday school teacher. I never saw her dance either. So where did we three brothers get our love of dance?
And in the mysterious ways that music works, the above anecdote is the lead-in to this week’s classic selections. I’ve culled a handful of tracks from Duke Ellington’s In A Mellotone, one of only two major jazz albums that my father bought. Back in 1941, Duke was dance music and indeed, continued to play dances into the fifties. Turns out In A Mellotone featured what is now called by jazz critics the Webster-Blanton band because Duke was featuring Ben Webster on tenor saxophone and the bass chair was held down by Jimmy Blanton, often considered the first great modern jazz bassist. Back in the late fifties, when I first got to the record, I had no idea it was a classic. I just liked listening to the band and particularly the selections I’ve chosen.
Although I don’t think I ever directly thanked him, I certainly owe a lot of my love for Duke to my father purchasing and playing two critical Duke albums: In A Mellotone and A Drum Is A Woman.
Jazzheads can talk for days about this particular version of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. They can catalog the subtleties of the solos, the colors of the arrangements, the ingeniousness of the compositions; all of that is well deserved and good to be able to do, but that’s not my interest at this moment.
If I had to choose only one big band jazz album to listen to in the last hour before I died, In A Mellotone would be it because in addition to all the appropriate accolades, this album was my entrance into the entrancing world of serious jazz. As I type this, I can hear the strains of “What Am I Here For” tickling my inner being, asking a philosophical question that decades later I would try to answer in my book of essays titled What Is Life? I don’t need the record to hear that song, that’s how deep it’s in me.
I won’t even begin to get into my belief that Mr. Ellington is the greatest USA composer, period. Nobody else is even anywhere near, and that includes George Gershwin, who comes in a distant second, a long, long distant second. And I’m not talking jazz, I mean in all of American music, any genre, any period. And don’t let me bring up live recordings… I’m going to stop right here and take up my elevation of Ellington at a later time.
So without any more anecdotes or introductory chatter, here are my ten selections from the 18 tracks of In A Mellotone. You will notice that all of these songs are fully formed compositions with deft arrangements featuring the lungs, larynx and tongue of the Ellington’s sound, i.e. the five member reed section: two altos, tenor, baritone and clarinet (with all the reed men doubling on other instruments). There was never a more gorgeous or more celebrated saxophone section in all of jazz. Indeed, if you just want to consider ballads, who could outdo the triumvirate of Johnny Hodges on alto, Ben Webster on tenor, and Harry Carney on baritone—those three alone are swoon inducing soloists of the higher order of angelic sound.
And by the way, you will notice the drummer doesn’t have to do much because Blanton’s bass is driving the hell out of this train… I said I was going to stop but when it’s Ellington performances of this caliber what can a writer do but vainly try to wax as elegant as the music. I know the swing era of jazz is not everybody’s cup of tea but this is finely aged wine and even if you’re a teetotaler you ought to at least take a little sip of this Mixtape.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Duke Ellington Mixtape Playlist
In A Mellotone
01 “Take The "A" Train”
02 “Just A-Settin' And A-Rockin' ”
03 “Rocks In My Bed”
04 “In A Mellow Tone”
06 “I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)”
07 “Main Stem”
08 “All Too Soon”
10 “What Am I Here For?”
This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 30th, 2010 at 10:57 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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