Saturday, February 7, 2015

Hank Mobley - So Talented, So Often Overlooked [From The Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There is a place in modern jazz for a music that is technically enormously sophisticated, yet retains its creator's warmth; that is as intense as the greatest contemporary works, yet presents an open, welcoming surface wherein grace, even gentle humor, appear in the stead of the conventional fierceness; that is permeated with the blues, but without sentimentality or the kind of pandering that the work "funk" has come to represent. Hank Mobley has made that place for himself.
As H.L. Mencken wrote of Beethoven, there is no place for cheapness in Mobley's art; there is no evasion of the artist's responsibility for immediate communication (indeed, the absence of the cliche in Mobley's music can only be compared to the rare likes of Bud Powell). But the whole-hearted spirit of melody and swing on these rediscovered sides is the most direct kind of invitation to the listener: "The beat, the beat, they've got to have that beat!" says Mobley, and this set is typical of his work.”
-John B. Litweiler, insert notes to A Slice of the Top [Blue Note 33582]

"One thing about Hank,he sure plays relaxed. Hank's my favorite tenor player. He plays very fluently. He's very mature in his playing. I think he's very underrated."
- Freddie Hubbard, trumpet

“The hallmark of Mobley's playing is his precise and idiosyncratic use of rhythm. Initially this led him to produce very intricate improvised melodies whose impact was sometimes jeopardized by the extreme strain they imposed on his technique and timing. But he soon evolved a style in which his harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness was matched by an immaculate adherence to the beat, a subtly expressive use of tone, and beautifully relaxed delivery.”
- Michael James, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, [p. 784]

It’s hard to think of any other Jazz musician whose recorded work was as consistently pleasing as that of tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s efforts on Blue Note in the 1950’s and 60’s.

I’m sure the fact that Hank had a talent for composing catchy and intriguing hard bop compositions may have had something to do with this, but I always liked the sound he got on tenor saxophone, too. Unfortunately with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter still on the scene when Hank was at the height of his popularity, the sound he got on the big horn was difficult for some to hear over the work of the trend-setters on tenor sax.

What is remarkable, too, is the fact that while there are many tenor saxophonists who get a sound like Dex, Sonny, Coltrane and Shorter, few players today sound like Hank and that’s a shame because Hank’s purity of tone and endless ideas helped make the instrument’s sonority softer, more mellow and less angular than the tone achieved by many of his contemporaries.

In Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65, Kenny Mathieson puts these thoughts about Hank in a slightly different context when he writes:

“Hank Mobley occupies an odd position in the hard bop pantheon. If Lee Morgan was the quintessential hard bop trumpeter, Mobley sometimes seemed miscast within the genre, sporting a tenor saxophone sound which was almost the antithesis of everything which hard bop implied.

The confusion is a surface one - his music was fundamentally part of the movement, and he is one of its master craftsmen. He has been routinely passed over - both David Rosenthal in Hard Bop and Thomas Owens in Bebop hardly mention him other than in passing as a sideman, and Rosenthal does not include any of his records in his selected hard bop discography - or described as undervalued so often now that it has become a cliche, but his career reflects that neglect in unmistakable fashion.

Even his most ardent admirers concede that he lacked the power and individuality of the premier tenormen of the day, Coltrane and Rollins, but his contribution to the music was an important and lasting one, and he is hardly to be ignored simply because he stood in the shadow of giants. Jazz is much more than a history of its greatest figures, and Hank Mobley played his part to the full.” [p. 153]

Bob Blumenthal echoes this theme in his insert notes to Hank’s Blue Note album No Room for Squares when he writes:

“... many listeners … simply relegated Mobley to the middle of the pack — ‘solid, but not indispensable,’ as one critic recently wrote.   Such judgements, while hardly universal, were common enough to rob Mobley of deserved accolades both in life and death.

If Mobley lacked anything, it was the drive to become a "star" in the context of the jazz world; he surely was not lacking in talent. In a sense he was the quintessential sideman, particularly during the years 1954-63, when he worked for virtually every important non-tenor-playing leader on the East Coast. His own star turns were confined primarily to Blue Note record dates, where Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff recognized his strengths and made him one of the most frequently featured artists on the label. Mobley repaid this confidence by producing sessions that survive as definitive and rarely equalled examples of hard bop. Yet there were always more flamboyant or more radical musicians around to overshadow

Mobley's achievements; during the first part of the 1960s, when he reached his creative peak in sessions such as those contained on the present compact disc, his work was considered irrelevant next to the manifestos of the free players. By the end of the '60s, with rock overwhelming all styles of jazz, Mobley had sunk into an obscurity from which he never really emerged.”

Bob elaborated a bit further on some of the factors associated with Mobley’s obscurity in these comments he prepared for the Mosaic Records boxed-set The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions [MD6-181]:

“[According to] the baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter [a patron of Jazz musicians in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s], Hank Mobley's aspirations [having] to do with the conditions performing jazz musicians seek yet find all too rarely  … [included] ‘Somewhere to play where people aren't just comparing you to someone else’....

Few musicians had greater cause to seek such a forum for their playing than Hank Mobley, who could serve as Exhibit A when building a case against the poll-driven, King of the Hill approach to jazz appreciation. Possessed of both his own conception, which made Mobley's music readily identifiable, and the equally rare inspiration that also made listening to his work eminently satisfying,

Mobley was perpetually eclipsed throughout his career by more extroverted and influential stylists. Throughout the period represented by the present collection, his work was often downgraded as a lesser version of Sonny Rollins; and in 1960 and '61, when he worked with Miles Davis and recorded what are his greatest sessions under his own name, he was dismissed for not measuring up to his predecessor in the Davis band, John Coltrane.

When the avant-garde innovators dominated the attention of jazz critics a few years later, Mobley's playing was often dismissed as old hat and irrelevant. It has only been in the years since he stopped recording (his last session, co-led with Cedar Walton, took place in 1972), and especially since his death in 1986, that the exceptional quality of his playing and writing has begun to receive a commensurate measure of respect.”

In this excerpt from his insert notes to Workout [Blue Note CDP 7 84080 2], Leonard Feather explains Hank’s distinctiveness this way:

“Perhaps the reason for this steady reputation is that Hank through all these years has remained more or less unclassifiable. Though he has worked with musicians of the hard bop school, his tone and conception scarcely qualify for the "hard" definition.

Nor is it possible for the experts to categorize him as a member of this or that school of tenor players. His only major influence has been an alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker. There is little in him of Hawkins, Young or Rollins, and not more than a trace of Coltrane, as far as I can detect.

The lack of a classification must be counted as a virtue rather than a shortcoming, since it indicates what many of us suspected all along: that Mobley has been basically his own man, with no restrictive allegiance to any one source of inspiration.”

In Roll Call [Blue Note CDP 7 46823 2], Ira Gitler states:

“Mobley has been underrated. It is more than unfortunate that certain terms generally and accurately employed to describe him; steady, reliable musicians' musician, etc. have lost the dignity of their definitions and have come to imply only mediocrity. If Mobley is too frequently ignored or relegated to the rear in discussions of modern tenor saxophonists it is probably due more to a hero-jaded public consciousness than to the real capacities or limitations of his talent.”

In his insert notes to A Caddy for Daddy [Blue Note 84230] Ira goes on to explain that regarding Hank’s output on Blue Note:

“It is instructive, and eminently enjoyable, to trace Hank's career through these recordings. His growth as a player is inextricably bound up with his development as a writer. Material dictates playing directions and Mobley has managed to find new combinations within the tradition of his chosen music to nurture his art. Remaps this does not seem like a great accomplishment but in light of the many absurdities being carried on in the name of jazz these days it certainly merits recognition and praise.”

Richard Cook,  in his The Biography of Blue Note Records offers this perspective on Mobley’s place in the history of this distinguished Jazz label:

Mobley has always been a favourite among Blue Note collectors - perhaps the favourite musician in such circles. Though a journeyman rather than any kind of ground-breaking voice, he was more influential than jazz histories have often allowed. Many British musicians of the fifties and sixties would seek out his elusive records. If a figure such as Sonny Rollins was too overpowering a voice to be useful as an influence, the more diplomatic Mobley could offer more practical material to work with. His three great records are surely Soul Station, Roll Call and Workout.

…. What swings [these] records on to the top level, though, is Mobley's extraordinary understanding of how he makes time work for him. For such a relaxed sounding tenorman, with his unruffled, lean tone and curling melody lines, the way he can handle the beat, every inflexion in the line timed to go with an aspect of the pulse, is little short of amazing. Mobley's mastery is so complete that it often deceives the ear. He might seem to be lagging behind, or staggering slightly, yet there's never any need to right himself - he had it in the pocket all along.” [pp. 146-147]

My favorite of Hank Mobley’s many Jazz compositions is his No Room for Squares, the title tune from a Blue Note LP by the same name [84149]. The tune forms the soundtrack for the following video tribute to Hank.


  1. Thanks for this much-deserved tribute to Hank. While not as extroverted or flashy as other famous tenor saxophonists of his era, there is no one I'd rather listen to. In my opinion he was the most melodic tenor since Lester Young and his music offers all of the beauty and catharsis of the greatest masters of this music.

  2. It’s irritating to read all these comments from jazz pundits who insist on comparing Mobley to other saxophonists and claiming he comes out short. For all I know, you can compare musicians in some sense but what is your tape measure: speed, loudness, complication, variability, contrast, surprises, harshness? How does a musician measure up with repeated listening? Mobley is simply THE most enjoyable saxophonist. No one else has his confidence, his razor sharp acuity, while at the same time being thoughtful, not overly wordy. Qualities that frankly no other sax player possesses. No one else quite reaches Mobley’s artistic height. Listen to ‘Ultramarine’ for instance, an amazing display of dreaminess and a surefooted walk on a rickety jungle bridge at the same time.

  3. At around 1"30 on 'no room for squares' HM attempts a use of 4ths melodically and has to quickly drop the idea, which indicates an inability to advance his tonality-based style. In effect, he couldn't HEAR that different kind of melody, and more broadly, couldn't accomodate new developments. Perhaps this contributed to the coarsening of his playing thru the 60s to the point of final oblivion. Yes, 1959-61 is the best Mobley period by far.

    1. I'll 'reply' to myself here to say that the strong drive of the music, which gave it its extraordinary value, was developmental,from Bunk Johnson to Cecil Taylor. HM was not significant as to that, so in a sense, got 'plowed under'by the music itself. I'm using a historicist approach here to deliberately go beyond the emotional/impressionistic mode of commentary, which doesn't go deep enough. Look at how a true musical genius, Armstrong, was shunted aside after his huge contributions were made - just one example.

  4. Yes, Mobley was melodic, lyrical, and also a very subtle musician, whose impact has been sidelined because his albums and compositions often became formulaic: post-bebop, ballad, and funk. I think his tunes and his legacy have to be appreciated on their own terms; he was as laid-back and undemonstrative as Prez, but he always left a statement, even if he didn't make it with the force or impact of Coltrane, Shorter, or Rollins.


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