The Book Cooks
Chapter 6: Soul Station
When I first started listening seriously to jazz in the mid to late 1950s, it was not possible to buy Blue Note records in the UK. A good slice of the Prestige output was issued under licence by Esquire Records in this country and you could get a number of Atlantic LPs that were released on London Records. Vogue put out Pacific Jazz and a very few Blue Note sessions, but in the main we were starved of music from a premier jazz catalogue. So it was particularly rewarding in the early 1960s when Blue Note LPs began to be imported into the UK and my first purchases were The Jazz Messengers, the 1958 Moanin’ session with Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons and Volume Two (because only Volume Two was available for a long time) of The Jazz Messengers at the Café Bohemia with, as fate would have it, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham in the front line.
I was immediately knocked out by Mobley’s playing on the Bohemia disc, even though it was a relatively early sample, and in spite of the fact that the jazz community have kept pretty quiet about his tenor work here over the years. Even so, there was quite a leap in his abilities as a soloist in the next five years and my second purchase of a Mobley record was Soul Station, shortly after it came out in 1960 or early 1961. I could not know at the time that Mobley was just hitting his prime and that the new LP was the first of three which would represent the finest recorded music of his entire career, but I still have the original Blue Note LP. I play it regularly as the sound is better, less bland, than the Van Gelder-remastered CD version. Soul Station is Hank Mobley’s masterpiece.
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On 7th February 1960, Mobley travelled to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record at Rudy Van Gelder’s new, custom-built studio. There could have been no idea in his head at the time that this was anything other than a routine recording session for Blue Note, one of many he had undertaken for the company since his first as a leader in 1955. The idea that anything special would result from the few hours spent taping the session would not have occurred to any of the musicians present.
The musicians recorded three originals by the leader, one blues and two unhackneyed, but very attractive standards. The end result was Soul Station, one of the greatest LPs to emerge from Blue Note Records in the 1950s and 1960s. It was cited by British tenor saxophonist and club owner Ronnie Scott as his favourite Mobley album and it is, and has remained, the acknowledged best of all Hank’s records for many musicians and enthusiasts ever since it was released in 1960.
Listening constantly to the music on this LP, and later on the CD reissue and analysing it, does not really give any clue to the sudden maturity of style and conception that is evident, but there may well be a physical reason to explain the strength and warmth of Mobley’s tenor saxophone sound. Writing in the March 2004 edition of Jazz Journal International, Simon Spillett, an impressive young jazz tenor saxophonist himself and a staunch admirer of Mobley, states:
there is a greater depth and clarity to his tone, possibly attributed to his finally settling upon a metal Otto Link mouthpiece. which gives a far broader open quality when compared to the fogginess of Hank’s work on his previous ebonite mouthpiece during the mid-1950s
The new mouthpiece would certainly have made a difference to the overall sound and a second point made by Spillett is also a major factor in the success of the disc: Mobley’s choice of sidemen.
In 1978, four British jazz critics named Soul Station as one of the two hundred modern jazz records that no enthusiast should be without.1 Reviewing the LP, Michael James wrote:
This LP set the seal on Mobley’s complete emergence as an inventive and personal improviser, and though some of his subsequent releases bear comparison with it, none presents a more favourable impression of his accomplishments.
The review suggests that, prior to this recording, Mobley was a gifted stylist but his phrasing, relying on his idiosyncratic use of rhythm, often suffered if his sense of timing or accuracy of note production went slightly askew. It also suggests that it had seemed that up until this point Mobley might never achieve his promise. However I rather think that he was well on his way with sessions such as the 1955 LP The Hank Mobley Quartet, the 1957 LP Hank Mobley and His All Stars and the unreleased Poppin’.
Certain special records strike a chord with musicians, reviewers, historians and fans, and it is frequently the case that the greatest individual soloists have one outstanding disc that outstrips all their other efforts in terms of invention, inspiration and quality of music. With Louis Armstrong it happened early on, with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens from 1925 to 1927. Parker, too, peaked relatively early, and his Savoy sessions from 1945, particularly the tracks on the later-released LP such as ‘Ko Ko’, ‘Billie’s Bounce’ and ‘Thriving on a Riff’, represent classic Bird in full flight, rampant with invention. Parker and Gillespie had The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall from 1952 and Miles Davis had Kind of Blue in 1959. Sonny Rollins had taped Saxophone Colossus in 1956 and John Coltrane made his A Love Supreme in 1967. With Hank Mobley it was February 1960 and Soul Station is his undisputed masterpiece.
Considering the success of The Hank Mobley Quartet in 1955, it is surprising that he left it so long before attempting to make another LP with only his own horn in the front line and a world-class rhythm section. It seems, with the benefit of that useful measuring tool, hindsight, that he could have produced more successful records with a quartet and no second or third horn partners. And a case could be made, although not a very strong one, for suggesting that Hank’s two quartet discs from 1955 and 1960 represent his finest work on records.
Arguably Soul Station is, in all respects, just about the perfect jazz album. From the relaxed, opening bars of Irving Berlin’s ‘Remember’ through to the last notes of the ballad ‘If I Should Lose You’, Hank and his sterling rhythm section are on inspired form. And when talking about the one recorded set that great soloists all seem to produce, a CD that stands out from the rest as special, it is surprising how many of these discs are made by a quartet. Saxophone Colossus, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Giant Steps, his Atlantic LP from 1959 which would also qualify as a masterwork, spring readily to mind, along with Soul Station and, of course, Mobley’s first strong quartet date for Blue Note. A little later in that crucial year, 1960, Hank recorded Roll Call, another masterpiece which some commentators have claimed is almost the equal of Soul Station. It isn’t. Soul Station stands alone; perhaps we should take a close look at it to find out if and why my statement is valid.
Joe Goldberg’s perceptive and very well-informed liner notes give us our first clues and it is worth remembering that when he wrote them, and indeed when the record was first released in the late spring of 1960, Mobley was still receiving lukewarm recognition or downright negative criticism from critics for his work, both live and on recordings. Goldberg begins by dismissing the notion that LPs such as this should be regarded as just a ‘blowing date’.2 He argues that only the very greatest jazz musicians could get away with just coming into the studio and blowing, with little or no preparation. And while the record seems on the surface to have all the elements of a ‘blowing session’: ‘tenor and rhythm, a few originals, a couple of seldomdone standards, and a blues’, the difference, according to Goldberg, is apparent as soon as you start listening. He goes on to suggest that two of the factors that make the LP outstanding and different from run-of-the-mill products of the time are the presence of Art Blakey on drums and Hank’s unusual rhythm sense. He quotes from a conversation with Blakey where the drummer noted that many songs are written in complex rhythms but the soloists almost always revert to a straight 4/4 time. Blakey maintained that most of them couldn’t play them any other way but that Hank Mobley could. It is no accident that all analysis of Mobley’s solo abilities refer to his unique and very personal rhythmic prowess. His methods may have been quirky, eccentric even, at times, but his ability to swing and fit all his phrases into the required time structure are essential to his success and belated recognition as a truly different, and original, jazz soloist.
Taking up Goldberg’s point about Blakey for a moment: he was the drummer on Hank’s first Blue Note disc and with the cooperative group of Jazz Messengers where Mobley first matured as a soloist and he would also feature on Mobley’s later album, Roll Call. Certainly Art opens up this set from bar one and is an inspiration throughout the session. ‘Remember’ is a seldom tackled, attractive Irving Berlin song and Mobley and everybody else sound completely relaxed throughout this reading. Hank sails inventively through his solos flanked by the impeccable rhythmic thrust and support provided by Kelly, Chambers and Blakey. Next up, Mobley’s own ‘This I Dig of You’, is a compulsive swinger where the leader, Kelly and Blakey, in particular, distinguish themselves. Blakey’s solo is stunning; all of his kit is utilised in a polyrhythmic tour de force that sounds like no other drum solo I have ever heard. No wonder the leader and the other sidemen were inspired to play at the top of their abilities. It is often forgotten, or barely understood, that for all the jokes about three musicians and a drummer, a top percussionist, in inspired form, can lift the performances of all the musicians on the date and cap them with an abundance of energy and a special lift from his own contributions. Art Blakey does that here and is certainly a major factor in the success of this album.
Wynton Kelly’s special brand of light touch, melodic soloing ability and intuitive, sympathetic accompaniment, is another strong factor and he, too, was on top form for this recording date. He and Chambers had played together on records and in the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet rhythm section for some years and they worked hand in glove together at all times. With Blakey they were a pretty lethal combination and when they were ‘hot’, as here, any soloist would find it more difficult not to swing than to swing easily. Add to that the fact that there was no other horn soloist to add another dimension of only partial compatibility or his own agenda. All these factors played their part in producing an exceptional LP in an era when exceptional LPs were far more frequent than they are today. We have, however, left the most important consideration to last: Mobley himself.
Goldberg, in those original LP notes, talks about the difficultyin categorising the tenor man. Mobley always presentedproblems for jazz writers because, unlike almost every other contemporary musician, he could not easily be fitted into slots beloved of such writers, as, for example, an out and out bopper, hard bopper, cool player, or even as someone influenced, directly or indirectly, by the major players of the day: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane or early pacesetters like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Hank stood alone, as always. And as Goldberg pointed out, his strongest influence had been Charlie Parker, not Lester Young as many people believe. His sound was not lightweight or cool like Lester and his stylistic descendants. What had happened to Hank, to bring him to the creative peak he reached with Soul Station, was, according to Goldberg, ‘so simple as to be completely overlooked, in a mass of theory, digging for influences, and the like: he was working out his own style’. As Goldberg saw it,
he worked slowly and carefully, in the manner of a craftsman. . . taking what he needed to take from whomever he needed to take it (everyone does that, the difference between genius and hackwork is the manner in which it is done) and finally emerging, on this album, not with a disconnected series of tunes, but with a definite statement to make.
It sounds like an oversimplification, but you won’t find me giving Joe Goldberg an argument. The level of relaxation that Hank displays on the title track is far greater than anything evident on his records up to that point and the creative process thus seems to become effortless. His lines flow with such ease and fluidity that he commands a special effort from his rhythm section and they respond spontaneously.
All the above is fairly obvious now, more than forty years after the event, but it is a safe bet that none of it would have been apparent at the time. The musicians would probably have been pleased that the session went particularly well and left it at that. Reaction to the LP was good but hardly ecstatic. The reviewer in the American magazine DownBeat gave it four stars, which means ‘very good’, along with a warm but far from rapturous review. Today, if it were appearing for the first time, it would almost certainly receive the five-star ‘excellent’ rating and a string of written superlatives.
Talking about the three most productive years of Mobley’s life in Jazz Journal (September 1986), Dave Gelly made the following observations about ‘This I Dig of You’ from Soul Station:
It was during these few glorious years that he demonstrated most effectively his ability to improvise on both modal and chromatic harmonies and to move between the two with absolute stylistic consistency. Listen to ‘This I Dig of You’ on Soul Station, which alternates eight bars of one scale (Cm7/F7) with eight bars of chromatic changes. The first winds up the spring and the second releases it. The sheer agility with which he exploits this musical drama is enough to place him in the ranks of the great jazz improvisers. Listen too to his brisk, spare statement of the theme of ‘Remember’, the clear, measured lines in the stop time choruses of the blues ‘Dig Dis’ and the calm, knowing exploration of ‘If I Should Lose You’. Soul Station is Hank Mobley’s masterpiece, on a par with Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus.
The cover of the original LP and all subsequent CD issues shows a black-and-white photograph, taken with a blue filter, of Hank smiling broadly and holding up his saxophone in a sort of salute of triumph. Perhaps, as that photograph was taken, he did have a suspicion that the recording he had just completed was something special and his career was entering a new, more mature, phase.