© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
From every standard of judgement - improvisational brilliance centered on memorable melodic lines, intonation and facility on the instrument, astute knowledge of harmony, precise rhythmic phrasing - Hank Mobley, was a giant - a tenor saxophonist more than worthy of comparison with his contemporaries who have long been considered as such - Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.
To say that during his time on the scene that Mobley was done a disservice by the Jazz press would be to underscore one of the great understatements in the history of modern Jazz.
What were they listening to?
- The Editorial Staff at JazzProfiles
“By dint of hard perseverance over the years Mobley has finally reached a stage in his career where recognition of the kind accorded Rollins and Coltrane must surely be well within his grasp. When I contributed an article on the former's earlier work to this magazine in October, 1959, I went out of my way to assert there was no point in setting one such musician up against another: instead the listener should do his utmost to penetrate to the heart of the music, to see where each man's true achievement lies. Not unnaturally, I believe this holds good for Mobley as well.
He has had to contend with many sneers in his time and with the type of criticism that metes out summary justice by mechanically bracketing this or that performer with his associates, irrespective of the ways in which his style differs from theirs. Today the time is past when Mobley can be written off so easily. The host of excellent records he has made for Blue Note during the last two years stand as irrefutable evidence of his stature.
In this essay my intention has been to point out the distinctive qualities of his music, to show how they relate to each other, and to suggest the various shades of feeling they imply. Having attempted as much, perhaps I may be allowed lo close on a more general note, and insist that if intelligence, inventiveness and emotional power rank as the most desirable attributes of the artist, then Hank Mobley, at the comparatively young age of thirty-one, has already done enough to deserve that appellation.”
- Michael James, December, 1961 edition of Jazz Monthly.
Sadly, Michael’s assertions about Hank Mobley’s deserved place in the pantheon of great Jazz tenor saxophonists were not meant to be - then or now.
But credit is due to Michael for having heard and written about Hank’s special qualities both as a player and as a composer of great talent and distinctiveness at such an early date in Hank’s career.
Written in 1987, Larry Kart, in the following, second of two essays on Hank Mobley published in his brilliantly conceived and artfully written Jazz in Search of Itself [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004], also acknowledges Michael James’ place in the scheme of things as an early admirer of Hank Mobley’s masterly abilities.
Michael James also published a later essay on Hank in the August, 1962 edition of Jazz Monthly and we will subsequently link Larry Kart’s first piece to it as the Mobelian themes in each compliment one another.
© - Larry Kart: copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission. [Paragraphing modified in places.]
“Ah yes, The Hankenstein. He was s-o-o-o-o hip.” That was the response of Dexter Gordon when the late Hank Mobley’s name came up in conversation a while ago. “Hankenstein” - as in identifying Mobley as a genuine “monster” in the best sense of the term, while the slow motion relish of “he was s-o-o-o-o hip” seemed to have both musical and extramusical connotations.
But then, like so many who came to know Mobley’s music, Gordon decided to qualify his phrase echoing critic Leonard Feather’s assessment that Mobley was “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” whose approach to the instrument (according to Feather) lacked the “magniloquence” that Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and others had brought to it.
But that is not the only way to estimate Mobley’s achievement. The middleweight champ, yes, if magniloquence and size of tone are what is involved, but never merely a middleweight - for Mobley, who died last May  at age fifty-five, blazed his own trail and left behind a body of work that never ceases to fascinate. Indeed when one examines the core of Mobley’s music (the twenty-four albums recorded under his own name for Blue Note from 1955-1970), it seems clear that his poignantly intense lyricism could have flourished only if magniloquence was thrust aside.
Mobley’s career as a recording artist falls into three rather distinctive stages.
The first ran from 1955-1958, when he made eight of his Blue Note Albums, while working with the Jazz Messengers and groups led by Horace Silver and Max Roach. The second produced the magnificent Soul Station, Roll Call, Workout, and Another Workout albums in 1960 and 1961, when he was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet. And the third ran from No Room for Squares  to Thinking of Home .
Influenced initially by Sonny Stitt, but incorporating far more of Charlie Parker’s asymmetrical rhythmic thinking than Stitt chose to do, Mobley was also more attuned to the lyrical sensibilities that Tadd Dameron brough to bop - an unlikely and perilous blend that gives Mobley’s stage-one solos their special flavor.
Perhaps the first critic to pay any close attention to him was an Englishman, Michael James, in the December, 1962 issue of Jazz Monthly, and James’ account, and James’ account of the tenor saxophonist’s solo on News from the 1957 album Hank Mobley (Blue Note) is particularly apt.
“His phrases grow more and more complex in shape,” James writes, “until … it seems as though he is about to lose all sense of structural compactness. But he rescues the situation … and his last 12 bars less prolix and tied more closely to the beat, imbue the whole improvisation with a unity of purpose that is paradoxically the more striking for its having tottered for a while, as it were, on the brink of incoherence.”
Solos of that kind and quality can be found as early as 1955 when Mobley recorded his first album, Hank Mobley Quartet (Blue Note). And, as James suggests, his best work of the period is so spontaneously ordered and so bristling with oblique rhythmic and harmonic details that its sheer adventuresomeness seems inseparable from the listener’s - and perhaps the soloist’s - burgeoning sense of doubt. That is, to make sense of lines [improvisations], one must experience every note - for there are so many potential paths of development, each of which can inspire in Mobley an immediate response, that ambiguities of choice become an integral part of the musical/emotional discourse.
And that leads to the genius of stage two, for as Mobley gained in rhythmic and timbral control, his music became at once more forceful and uncannily transparent - as though each move he made had its counterpart in a wider world that might not exist if Mobley were compelled to explore it. Two fine examples of that urgently questing approach are I Should Care and Gettin’ and Jettin’, both from Another Workout (Blue Note). Rather than being a direct romantic statement, I Should Care becomes a song about the possible contexts of romance - not so much a tale of love but a search for a place where that function can be expressed. (Mobley does this by building his solos around balladized” bop phrases whose angular tensions, here made more languid, serve to test the romantic dreaminess, which in turn tries to subdue those “realistic” intrusions.)
Mobley’s sensitivity to context is present in a different way on Gettin’ and Jettin’ as he pares down his lines toward the end of his brilliant solo in order to invite the active participation of drummer Philly Joe Jones. (Mobley’s interaction with drummers is a story in itself - his exceptional taste for contrapuntal rhythmic context bringing out the best that he and such masters as Jones, Art Blakey and Billy Higgins had to offer.)
Stage three of Mobley’s career had its virtues too, and if such recordings as A Caddy for Daddy (Blue Note), Dippin’ (Blue Note) and the first side of the recently issued Straight No Filter (Blue Note) were all we had, Mobley would still be a major figure. But as John Litweiler has pointed out [1973 Downbeat interview], Mobley “Consciously abandoned some degree of high detail in favor of concentrating his rhythmic energies” which gave his music a bolder profile but left less room for the jaw-dropping ambiguities of his stage one and stage two work. Above all though - and to a degree that is matched by few soloists - Mobley invites the listener to think and feel along with him. Indeed, his commitment is such that a commitment of the same sort is what Mobley’s music demands.”