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Hank Mobley
The Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions 1963–1970
Mosaic Records MD8 268

Let’s play a bit of a thought experiment along the lines of one of Downbeat’s blindfold tests: have a friend take the eight discs in The Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions 1963–1970, conceal the details, and hit play. As Leonard Feather would instruct his blindfold test subjects, don’t try and guess who the musicians are – take in the music and gather your thoughts. What you’d hear is some of the finest hard bop playing ever put to wax and a number of singular compositions. You’d probably feel confident in guessing the time period, record label, and some of the players. Now ask your friend for some more details without revealing the musicians’ identity. They’d tell you that the set contains thirteen sessions recorded during the 1960s for Blue Note under the name of a single bandleader. Given the quality and sheer amount of music (those sessions yielded twelve albums), you might assume that this music is by one of jazz’s canonical figures. And then your friend tells you it’s Hank Mobley, or as Leonard Feather dubbed him “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone.” Is Mobley respected and revered by many saxophonists? Yes. But is he an iconic jazzman? Not really.

While Mobley is known for recording some stone cold classics for Blue Note such as Soul Station (good luck finding a first pressing in decent condition for under $500) and reaching the pinnacle of midcentury jazz by playing with Miles, Mobley’s stature in jazz history unjustly does not match up with his music’s quality and importance. He was voted into Downbeat’s Hall of Fame only in 2019 – and by the readers, not the critics – and several of his albums haven’t been reissued on CD in the United States in decades; and, so far, no label has been able to dig up a “lost masterpiece” as is the case with many of his contemporaries. When he died of lung cancer in 1986 at the age of 55, he had faded into obscurity, despite releasing somewhere around twenty albums for Blue Note alone. And more sadly, he spent his final years hornless (they were stolen) and homeless in Philadelphia.

For better or worse, jazz history often focuses on jazz’s “great men” – those towering figures like Bird, Miles, and Trane who transcend their music to be icons in their own right. As Bob Blumenthal points out in his extensive liner notes, Mobley’s personality did not meet the traits required to be a successful bandleader. He relays Mobley’s preference for spending set breaks in cars so he wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. Mobley’s only working band was a unit he co-led with long-time collaborator Lee Morgan that occasionally played at New York clubs a week here and there. It’s hard to generate a public profile when one lacks the desire, outsized personality, or skills that celebrity requires. And in Mobley’s case, his lyrical and non-pyrotechnic playing style, along with the subtle complexity of his compositions (his 44, 46, and 50 bar forms sound so natural that they don’t stand out as extraordinary) did not grab headlines. But that’s of no fault of Mobley’s; rather, it’s an indictment on the ecology of the jazz world and American culture more broadly.

This set demonstrates the large gap between Mobley the figure as narrated by jazz critics and historians and Mobley the musician. Including Mobley’s classic albums from this period like No Room for Squares, The Turnaround, and A Caddy for Daddy, this collection prompts listeners to ask what might have been had all of his recordings been released. The first session – recently reissued on vinyl by the boutique label Music Matters as The Feelin’s Good – makes this readily apparent. This March 1963 date yielded six cuts that did not appear together until the 1989 CD reissue of Straight No Filter. Featuring a crack lineup of Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Butch Warren, and Philly Joe Jones, this was the first session Mobley had led in fifteen months. It’s hard to guess from a musical standpoint as to why Blue Note decided to include two tracks from this session on No Room for Squares and two others on The Turnaround rather than issuing the session as a standalone LP. With the rousing “Old World, New Imports” and “East of the Village,” a lovely ballad reading of “The Good Life,” and three other very fine performances, it’s hard to believe that this wouldn’t have been a successful record.

As one listens along to Mobley’s career as it progresses through No Room for Squares (recorded 1963; released 1964), The Turnaround (rec. and rel. 1965), Dippin’ (rec. 1965; rel. 1966), and A Caddy for Daddy (rec. 1965; rel. 1967) one hears less a singular group identity than the refinement of a more general hard bop vocabulary shared by scores of players, regardless of whether they recorded with Mobley. While Mobley may not have had a regular band, he did have a close circle of regular collaborators: Billy Higgins played on nine sessions; Lee Morgan appeared on six; McCoy Tyner and Philly Joe Jones both appeared on three. The bass and piano chairs were a bit of a revolving door, as was the trumpet spot in Morgan’s absence. The caliber and pedigree of the full personnel across these sessions is staggering; from Woody Shaw to Paul Chambers, Herbie Hancock to Blue Mitchell – these dates were stacked.

While it’s easy to assume that the onus of making a good record is primarily on the players, in Mobley’s case, much of his artistic success hinged on Blue Note’s business choices. In the spring of 1966, Liberty Records purchased Blue Note. The change in ownership happened to coincide with the start of a fourteen-month stretch in which Mobley recorded four sessions, only to have Blue Note shelve each of them. The music caught on A Slice of the Top (rec. 1966; rel. 1979); Straight No Filter (rec. 1966; rel. 1986); Third Season (rec. 1967; rel. 1981); and Far Away Lands (rec. 1967; rel. 1985) is some of the most captivating and rewarding of his career.

During his incarceration on drug charges in 1964 (which explains his sixteen-month recording gap between No Room for Squares and The Turnaround), Mobley wrote the music for the octet session A Slice of the Top. Inspired by Miles Davis’s nonet, it featured Mobley and Duke Pearson’s arrangements and a somewhat unusual five-horn frontline of Morgan, Mobley, James Spaulding on alto and flute, Kiane Zawadi on euphonium and trombone, and Howard Johnson on tuba. Tyner, Higgins, and Bob Cranshaw round out the group. No other album from this period of Mobley’s career stands apart as much as A Slice of the Top. The range of horn voices from flute on down to tuba gives the compositions an expansiveness and depth while the interplay between the tuba and treble voices lends the music a vitality and verve: dig the call and response and bell tones across the ensemble on “Hank’s Other Bag” and “A Touch of Blue”; check how Johnson’s anchoring of the downbeat of the triple meter of “Cute ‘N Pretty” frees up his fellow horn players to take flight. The solos are uniformly strong (Spaulding on the title track is absolutely riveting), the ensemble plays the charts with utter conviction, and the horn voicings are just unusual enough that they force the listener’s attention. Blumenthal quotes an interview in which Mobley told John Litweiler that the album was “the best thing I ever did.” It must have been frustrating for Mobley to have what he felt was his best work sit for thirteen years. The bosses at Liberty Records didn’t know what they had.

Straight No Filter is perhaps one of the biggest “what if?” moments of Mobley’s career. Featuring McCoy Tyner – fresh from his tenure in Trane’s classic quartet – alongside Morgan, Cranshaw, and Higgins, this session’s three tunes are scintillating. The uptempo title track charges hard out of the gate with barn-burning horn solos as they negotiate the tension created by the tune’s harmonic structure. “Chain Reactions” is a modal piece reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Impressions” and is a showcase for Tyner, who over the course of a lengthy solo punctuates endlessly creative single note lines with short block chords. Given Tyner’s presence and the tune’s modal structure, one almost expects to hear Trane jump in. But Morgan and Mobley do not disappoint and deliver edgy and compelling solos. Mobley’s brief quote of “St. Thomas” is a delight. The medium swinger “Soft Impressions” cools things off, with all three soloists taking a more measured, but no less intense approach. It’s a shame the quintet wasn’t able to record another two tunes and have a full-length LP to release. This session had the makings of a masterpiece. It’s unfortunate that Blue Note sat on these three inspired performances for twenty years.

The quality of the third and fourth of these shelved albums suggest they were held back for extra-musical reasons. Save for Straight No Filter holdovers Morgan and Higgins, a new different band headed into the studio for Third Season. Spaulding is back, while Cedar Walton, bassist Walter Booker, and guitarist Sonny Greenwich make their first appearance in the collection. The album also marks the last time Morgan and Mobley would record together. The entire seven tune set is solid, and highlights abound: Mobley digs deep on “Don’t Cry, Just Sigh” as does Morgan on “The Steppin’ Stone.” The addition of Spaulding pays dividends, as his freewheeling lines and sense that he’s pushing his limits contrasts nicely with Mobley, Morgan, and Walton. “Give Me that Feelin’,” with its call and response between Morgan and the saxophones, is as soulful, funky, and viscerally enjoyable as anything else these eight CDs have to offer. Put that track on repeat. Far Away Lands, the final member of this quartet of lesser heard albums, celebrates Byrd and Mobley’s reunification as well as Ron Carter’s sole appearance with Mobley. While it’s another fine date it has less that distinguishes it from Mobley’s other quintet albums, and “Bossa for Baby” might be one pseudo-bossa too many.

If these four records – especially A Slice of the Top and Straight No Filter (had there been enough for a full album) – been promptly released they would have certainly boosted Mobley’s profile more than they did in the 1980s when he was all but forgotten and the general public’s attention to jazz had turned to Wynton and his pride of young lions. Would putting these albums into print have made Mobley into a star on their own? Probably not, given how much energy was being dedicated to Coltrane’s death, the controversy over free jazz, and growing concerns over the music’s racial politics. But it may have been harder for the jazz commentariat to ignore Mobley.

The final third of the collection consists of Hi Voltage (rec. 1967; rel. 1968); the uneven and rather forgettable Reach Out (rec. and rel. 1968); The Flip (rec. 1969, rel. 1970); and Thinking of Home (rec. 1970; rel. 1980). Hi Voltage, which features Jackie McLean, has always struck me as never fully succeeding in occupying two spaces: the classic hard bop sound of Soul Station at the beginning of the ‘60s, and the trajectories of McLean, Cecil Taylor, and others as they left the Blue Note orbit and embarked for deep space by the decade’s end. On Hi Voltage McLean no longer sounds at home in Mobley’s world as he would have ten years earlier. Reach Out nods to yet another possible direction for jazz at that moment: the rise of soul jazz and recording covers of contemporary pop songs as a way to maintain relevance in a rapidly shifting musical culture. While Blue Note had likely hoped Mobley’s cover of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” would be a hit, it turned out to be quite unfortunate, as it’s clear that nobody’s heart was in it. The Flip, recorded in Paris in 1969, and Thinking of Home, Mobley’s final date for Blue Note, were returns to familiar ground and form for Mobley and his mates.

This set’s value – aside from its great sound, packaging, and copious notes and photos – is the holistic view it provides of a particular career and the business decisions that shaped it. It gives listeners the ability to skip historical and critical narratives and to put on a blindfold and let their ears make up their own minds about Mobley’s contribution and his place in the pantheon. For me this set isn’t a matter of listening to Mobley 50+ years later only to find that he hasn’t been given his due because he was before his time and that we’re all now just catching up. His music was very much of its time, so much so that it defined a large portion of the jazz world at that moment and what it continues to be in the present. And that’s why it’s so frustrating to have Leonard Feather’s back-handed compliment stand as the shorthand definition of Mobley. Some of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers have been middleweights. So let us all take a moment to appreciate and soak up the work of the reigning and defending middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone, Hank Mobley.
–Chris Robinson

 

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