‘In a Sentimental Mood’ is a popular jazz standard composed by pianist Duke Ellington in 1935. Ellington recorded the song with his orchestra in the same year, with lyrics by Manny Kurtz and Irving Mills.

Read on to learn more about the origins of the song and some of the most famous renditions.

According to Ellington, he composed In A Sentimental Mood in Durham, North Carolina in 1935.

In an interview, he explained: “We had played a big dance in a tobacco warehouse, and afterwards a friend of mine, an executive in the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, threw a party… I was playing piano when another one of our friends had some trouble with two chicks. To pacify them, I composed this there and then, with one chick standing on each side of the piano.

The lyrics are conversational in manner and seem to depict two lovers lying together on a starry night. The singer speaks as if they are in disbelief that such a person would be their lover:

I’m within a world so heavenly,
“For I never dreamt that you’d be loving sentimental me.”

It is, in essence, a song about falling in love.

The Song

The original version of In A Sentimental Mood was composed in F major, with a Db major bridge. However, when Ellington played the song with Coltrane, it was played in Bb minor.

The song has two sections, an A and a B, with the B-section containing the song’s key change. As with many standards, ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ follows the AABA format.

Here are the chords of the A-section:

Dm, DmMaj7

Dm7, D6

Gm, GmMaj7

Gm7, Gm6

Dm

Dm, D7

Gm7, C7

F

And the B-section:

Db, Bbm7

Ebm7, Ab7

Db, Bb7

Ebm7, Ab7

Db, Bbm7

Ebm7, Ab7

Gm7

C7


Famous Versions of In A Sentimental Mood

As always, learning to play and improvise on a jazz song is helped by checking out some of the more famous versions out there.

Here’s our pick of some of the best…

The Best of Duke Ellington (Columbia Original Masters) (1953)

The original version of the track was originally released in 1935 and has since been featured on any Ellington compilation album. ‘The Best of Duke Ellington’ is just one of them.

It was first released on the Brunswick label with Otto ‘Toby’ Hardwick on the alto saxophone.

Sonny Rollins With The Modern Jazz Quartet (1953)

This compilation album showcases some of Sonny Rollins’ early works for Prestige, including a soaring take on ‘In a Sentimental Mood’.

The song features Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums).

The vibraphone is a very specific addition that certainly adds to the version’s uniqueness, but Rollins’ passionate and emphatic playing is the obvious reason to hear this.

Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1957)

Accompanied by Duke Ellington and his orchestra, this album (as the title implies) focuses entirely on Ellington’s discography.

Amidst a plethora of great performances, Fitzgerald gives a hauntingly beautiful interpretation of Ellington’s song.

YouTube video

Sarah Vaughan – After Hours (1961)

After Hours’ was the American jazz singer’s first album with just guitar and double bass to accompany her. It’s quiet, intimate and, for the most part, has rested in obscurity.

With its stripped back instrumentation, Vaughan’s performance is remarkably restrained, her voice remains silky and soft throughout, even through the rise and fall of the melody.

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1963)

This self-titled album by Ellington and Coltrane was one of many collaborations the composer had with his contemporaries.

The album features Ellington (piano), Coltrane (tenor sax, and on one occasion a soprano), Jimmy Garrison and Aaron Bell on bass, and Elvin Jones and Sam Woodyard on drums.

This was a somewhat strange occasion for Ellington, as it placed him with a quartet, rather than a big band.

The album featured Ellington standards, new compositions by Ellington, and a new Coltrane song titled “Big Nick”.

This version of the song is perhaps the most famous, which is not surprising given the acclaim of both leading men.

Michael Brecker / Steps Ahead – Magnetic (1986)

American jazz saxophonist and composer Michael Brecker was the leading man of Steps Ahead, a jazz-fusion group.

Their album ‘Magnetic’ is, for lack of a better term, an extremely 80s album; it features wet, splashy snares, layered vocals and plenty of electronic instruments.

This 1986 track wouldn’t have been out of place in a blockbuster romance movie at the time, yet listen a little deeper and you’ll notice some mind-boggling technique and improvisation going on in Brecker’s EWI (‘electronic wind instrument’) solo.

Marcus Miller – Tutu Revisited, feat. Christian Scott (2009, Live)

Tutu Revisited is a live album that was praised by many, with the Guardian giving it 4 stars for its “very inventive jazz-making”, which they accredited to the partnership of saxophonist Alex Han and trumpeter Christian Scott.

Miller’s version is a modern take on ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, featuring a bass clarinet, and a very neo-soul feel from the swelling synths. This version is very tender and honest, featuring a section toward the end with just brass.

YouTube video

Benny Goodman – Greatest Hits

Benny Goodman and his orchestra delivered one of the more faithful performances of ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, and is perhaps one of the more popular versions from the 1930s.

The feel of the song is very similar to that of the original, with the main difference being that the King of Swing played the clarinet, as opposed to the usual leading instrument of the song, the saxophone.

The song also comes across as less brooding than Ellington’s original version. The performance is almost jaunty as if it could have been part of the soundtrack to an animated film at the time.

Art Tatum – In Private

In Private’ is a collection of recordings made at Tatum’s home in California towards the end of the 1940s and released in the early 21st Century.

Perhaps one of the most technically impressive versions on this list, Tatum’s version is made up entirely of his piano playing alone. 

If you’re a fan of the song, this is a must-listen, as hearing how Tatum maintains harmony whilst playing at extreme speeds is phenomenal.

Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, it’s fun to hear how Tatum pushes the limitations of solo piano playing the absolute limits.

YouTube video

Shai Maestro – Human (2021)

This instrumental performance features a much more contemporary spirit that many items on this list, with the piano and drums providing a fascinating texture and countermelody behind the trumpet.

This transforms the song from a subtle, melancholic love song, to a more rhythmic, rolling tune. It is a great adaptation, but much more on-edge than relaxing – except the last minute of the song, which harkens back to the subtle, sweet, quiet performances of the song.

What’s your favourite rendition of In a Sentimental Mood? Let us know in the comments!

Find out more about Duke Ellington and his prolific career as a composer, pianist and bandleader in our biography of the jazz great.

And if you want to discover more essential jazz standards, check out our ultimate list of jazz standards that every musician should know.

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!