Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Hank Mobley's Recordings with Miles Davis by Simon Spillett - UPDATED

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

Here’s another posting in our “Quest” series, a set of related pieces designed to shed more light on Jazz musicians whom the editorial staff JazzProfiles views as underrepresented in the Jazz literature.

The JazzProfiles Mobley Quest commenced on February 7, 2015 with a featured entitled Hank Mobley: So Talented, So Overlooked which offered perspectives on Hank by John B. Litweiler, Michael James, Kenny Mathieson, Bob Blumenthal, Ira Gitler, Leonard Feather and Richard Cook.

This essay’s writer Simon Spillett earlier contributed a Mobley Quest piece he termed: Looking East: Hank Mobley in Europe, 1968 - 1970.

In addition to fronting his own quartet, Simon has won several awards for his music, including the tenor saxophone category of the British Jazz Awards (2011), Jazz Journal magazine, Critic's Choice CD of the Year (2009) and Rising Star in the BBC Jazz Awards (2007).

Simon has his own website which you can visit via this link.
© -  Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.

by Simon Spillett


I wrote the following article in 2004, after which it was submitted to, and published by, the English magazine Jazz Journal.

For this reprint, I have corrected a number of grammatical errors, as well as rewriting a few key passages which were poorly argued and/or badly constructed. The main body of the text – and its general sentiments – remain intact. I have, however, appended a new title to the piece – based upon a quote from Mobley himself, when interviewed about his tenure in the Davis quintet. Somehow, it seems a perfect title for an essay on music which, recorded at the very height of the impenetrable pretensions of certain quarters of the avant-garde, retained a readily comprehensible beauty.

I would also draw the readers attention to the fact that, at the time of writing, I had neither heard the Complete Davis recording from the Blackhawk, nor read Mobley's one and only DownBeat interview, conducted by John Litweiler in 1973. I would urge anyone reading this piece to seek both of these out. [Editor’s Note: The Litweiler Mobley Interview was published on these pages on April 6, 2018 and can be accessed by going here.]

This piece was also written prior to the publication of the only existing biography on Mobley, written by English journalist Derek Ansell. [Editor’s Note: The JazzProfiles review of Mr. Ansell’s book can be located by clicking on this link.]

Finally, I would like to extend my thanks to Steve Voce, for retaining a copy of the original piece – which I myself had lost – and to Steve Cerra for bringing it to a wider audience via this site.

Simon Spillett, August 2018

“Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Gary Bartz, Bill Evans, Bob Berg and Kenny Garrett are all saxophonists who justifiably owe their wider reputation and subsequent career success to their tenures in the various groups led by Miles Davis.

The trumpeter's midas-touch upon these performers, as with his legions of other sidemen, ensured him of his legendary talent as a 'star-maker', but there were occasionally other, less fortunate, graduates from his bands, some whose work elsewhere earned them great respect and admiration, who nevertheless failed to find acceptance with Davis.

It is not at all far-fetched to look upon the stay that tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley spent in Miles's early 1960s quintet as having very inverse effect on the remaining years of his career to that which Davis had upon his other saxophone playing protégés.

Mobley’s stint as a Davis sideman begun in December 1960, when he replaced the departing Sonny Stitt at an engagement at The Cloister nightclub in Chicago. Stitt could never realistically have been expected to fit with the Davis group's ethic in those immediately post-Kind Of Blue years. An unreconstructed Bebopper, he was used to negotiating his way around the most complex substitutions appended to standards and blues themes and he was not at all happy with the modal areas that Davis was then exploring (later still he offered some pointed criticism of his predecessor Coltrane's methods). The short-lived Davis quintet with Stitt briefly toured Europe and the United Kingdom in autumn 1960, supported in this country [U.K.] by the Vic Ash-Harry Klein Jazz Five. Ash's recollections to this writer forty years later verify that Stitt was less than comfortable with his role for the tour.

Stitt, of course, was a star in his own right, and a player who probably felt inhibited by a return to mere sideman status. Hank Mobley, on the other hand, was a sideman supreme, whose career to date had been largely confined to stints in the bands of Dizzy Gillespie. Max Roach, Horace Silver and Art Blakey However, Mobley had also recorded prolifically as a leader, chiefly for Blue Note records, where he appeared for a time with a frequency that made him seem like that label's house tenorman.

On these 1950s sessions, and on those with his regular leaders, Mobley displayed a solid style, intelligently constructed from the language of Charlie Parker with an emphasis on a subtle lyricism which leavened the occasional heaviness of the Hard Bop contexts in which he found himself. The ubiquitous appeal of his style is evidenced by the fact that not only did Mobley influence contemporary tenors like Clifford Jordan, Tina Brooks and Junior Cook, but that it also informed the work of future notable tenormen as Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson.

Unfortunately, this ubiquity – making him something of a 'musicians' musician' – led to Mobley frequently being taken for granted, both by critics and record buyers. A shy character, reluctant to push himself as bandleaders, he was all too easy to overlook, especially so during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Johnny Griffin's work contained more attention grabbing dramatics.

The years that marked the 'breakthrough' of Coltrane (via the release of his Giant Steps album) and the mystifying retirement from performance by Rollins, 1960 was also the beginning of something of a purple patch for Mobley. His work on two Blue Note albums recorded that year, Soul Station (BLUE NOTE 84031) and Roll Call (BLUE NOTE 84058) is generally regarded as his best on record, high praise for a musician who'd already proven himself among the most consistently inventive tenormen of his generation whenever caught by a studio microphone.

These two 1960 Blue Note sessions, however, seemed to crystalise Mobley's approach, as if he'd suddenly hot upon the perfect balance of sound and ideas.Firstly, 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 somewhat foggy articulation that had sometimes clouded his work when playing on an ebonite mouthpiece, which he'd done for a time in the middle-1950s.

Secondly, whilst Mobley's renewed vigour had already been discernible on his contributions to recordings done slightly earlier with Art Blakey (At The Jazz Corner of The World, taped April 1959) and Dizzy Reece, who once said that he thought Mobley made all the Avant-Garde tenor players sound 'like schoolboys' (Star Bright, taped November 1959), it was the context in which Hank now found himself that highlighted his new found focus. More specifically, it was his choice of sidemen.

Soul Station has Mobley together with his former boss Art Blakey and  the Miles Davis rhythm duo of bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Wynton Kelly,both of whom had recorded under the saxophonists leadership two years previously, as well as on the Reece session mentioned above. It's widely acknowledged that both Kelly and Chambers were at their artistic peaks around this time, with the pianist in particular enlivening Soul Station, never more so than on his bright dancing trip through Mobley's signature composition This I Dig Of You. He's just as impressive on the he follow-up, Roll Call, recorded in November 1960 just prior to Mobley joining Davis, which adds Freddie Hubbard, then in young tyro form. Again, despite Hubbard and Blakey's ear-catching dynamism, it is Kelly and Chambers who are most truly in-gear with the leader on these recordings.

Mobley's playing throughout these sets, and indeed elsewhere on Blue Note during this vintage (sessions with Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and others), undoubtedly represents his creative apex, one reached without too much regard for hip musical fashions. In his liner notes to Soul Station, annotator Joe Goldberg picked up on how Mobley had by and large ignored the usual routes towards modern jazz 'stardom';

'Nor did [Mobley], in the manner of John Coltrane, come almost completely unknown under the teaching influence of the great Miles Davis (for how many men has that recently been the key to success).'

Ironically, this is exactly what happened next. Mobley may have been anything but a musical neophyte (as some had regarded Coltrane when he joined the trumpeter in 1955), but Davis's offer assured him of perhaps the one thing that had thus far eluded him; a high-profile forum in which to showcase his art. Not only was his new leader in demand in clubs throughout the US, he was also recording for a major record label, releasing albums whose sales figures (and market prominence) dwarfed almost anything on Blue Note, Savoy and Prestige, the three independent imprints for which Mobley had already recorded. This high-visibility ensured anyone who worked with Davis a welcome share of the limelight.

However, Davis's choice of Mobley reveals the dilemma at the heart of his music. Post-Coltrane, he had been experiencing difficulties securing a wholly satisfying front-line partner. Jimmy Heath had briefly subbed for the departed Coltrane, but parole problems limited his contribution to Davis's touring itinerary (although one can hardly imagine him being an especially effective long term foil at this time anyway). Coltrane himself had suggested Wayne Shorter, but the young tenorist got a typically curt response to a phone call to Davis offering his services and joined Art Blakey instead. Sonny Stitt's recruitment, as discussed earlier, was therefore little more than a final stop-gap measure, as Davis confirmed in his autobiography years later.

Mobley's availability, it is safe to assume, probably came to Davis's attention via Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers. Undoubtedly, he already knew of the saxophonist's work, namechecking him as early as the 1955 interview on the sleeve of the Prestige Musings Of Miles LP (PRESTIGE 7007). As a potential sideman for the trumpeter, he certainly had the right credentials; each of his former band leaders -  Blakey, Silver and Roach – had at one time or another been in Davis' various line-ups.

A potential problem lay in the fact that,  unlike that of Coltrane when he joined Miles in 1955, Mobley's style was already basically set. It's interesting to look at the few joint appearances on record that Coltrane and Mobley made in the 1950s to bear this out. On the Tenor Conclave album (PRESTIGE 7074) made in late 1956 with fellow saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, one can easily pick out who is who, but of Coltrane and Mobley, it is the latter, interestingly enough also the younger of the two, who seems most in control. Coltrane was then in his awkward, gawky period, when he was consolidating his arhythmic ideas with a marked theoretical bias. In other words, whereas Mobley's solos already sounded like a language unto themselves, Coltrane's still resembled those of someone attempting to formulate his thoughts into cogent statements.

By 1960, of course, he had it all together, and seemed to be a different player in everything but intensity, a super-technician who had found a way to marry passion with precision whose improvisations now sounded like granite-sculpted works of art. Mobley's playing at this same juncture was undoubtedly cut from the same material as it had been four years previously.

Such a disparity of approaches may have been the result of the ambitions of the respective leaders that Coltrane and Mobley worked for. Davis, for example, strove to continually outrun the status quo of the music; when bebop reigned, he was off into cool, when cool began to capture the wider public, he went in pursuit of modal music.

Mobley's chief employers, Silver and Blakey, however, were less obsessed with pushing the envelope and concerned themselves primarily with a joyful celebration of the current influences on East Coast Afro-American jazz: Gospel, Blues. Latin music, Rhythm and Blues and Bebop, coalesced under the banner of Hard Bop, the  language of which few spoke as eloquently as Hank Mobley. Of Mobley's other bosses, only Max Roach was intent on going down another route, that of complex composition that contained the occaisonal hint of 'Third Stream' ambitions, something that may be the reason for Mobley's very brief time in Roach's late 1950s group, before ceding to the harder-hitting George Coleman (the association between Roach and Mobley was ultimately terminated finally when saxophonist was imprisoned on the first of his drug convictions in 1958.)

Mobley's on-record debut with Miles Davis occurred in March 1961, when he played on the three sessions that ultimately yielded the Someday My Prince Will Come album (COLUMBIA CL 1656). John Coltrane is also present on two of the tracks, the Spanish-suggesting modal exercise Teo, on which Mobley is absent, and the title tune, upon which he apparently dubbed in his solo on an existing take. Both tenormen are present on this track, although with this admission of post-production trickery, it is likely that neither man was actually in the studio when the other recorded his contribution. (An alternate take of Someday My Prince Will Come was initially issued on the box set Miles Davis - The CBS Years in 1988; CBS 463 246 - a performance which features only Mobley on tenor, as well as a less-than-happy sounding Davis ticking off Paul Chambers for playing the intro wrong.)

This was to be Miles and Trane's last recorded discourse, and it is all too easy to allow the exquisite beauty of Coltrane’s solo on the title cut to obscure Mobley's less stark and more reserved romanticism. He fares better on the two ballads, Old Folks and I Thought About You, the latter having an especially economic gem of a saxophone solo.

The more assertive drive of the two blues themes recorded at these dates. Pfrancin' (a.k.a. No Blues) and Blues No.2 (which remained unissued until the 1970s when it turned up on the odds-and-bits compilation Circle In The Round CBS 88471) is in marked contrast, with the latter performance including an impromptu sit-in by Philly Joe Jones.

Someday My Prince Will Come is without doubt a rewarding album, yet coming so hot on the heels of the breakthroughs of Kind Of Blue and relying so much on standards and blues material, it cannot fail to appear like a lesser achievement. Upon its release several critics expressed this exact sentiment, some quickly lining up Mobley as the root cause for the sudden musical flatlining, ignoring the fact that it was actually Davis who was in a creative lull and not his sidemen.
Indeed, the same week as Someday My Prince Will Come was completed, Mobley taped the third album in his great early 1960s Blue Note triptych, Workout (BLUE NOTE 84080), cut with Davis colleagues Kelly, Chambers and Philly Joe Jones and, as an added starter, guitarist Grant Green. A more hard-hilting example of Mobley in his prime is difficult to imagine, especially during his full-on solo on the title track, and even if the album ultimately fails to reach the heights of its two predecessors (the saxophonist's compositions seem a shade more functional this time around), it does provide a stellar example of the leaders ability to enrich a piece of musical fluff in The Best Things In Life Are Free, an old song dressed up in much the same two-beat, dance-friendly manner as Miles Davis had done on Bye, Bye Blackbird.

Sadly, Davis was beginning to share the critics' opinion of his tenorist, a noticeably rare example of the trumpeter and the jazz press concurring on anything. In his 1989 autobiography, he described to Quincy Troupe how: '...the music was starting to bore me because I didn't like what Hank Mobley was playing in the band. Playing with Hank just wasn't fun for me: he didn't stimulate my imagination'.

It needn't be pointed out that Davis had long looked to his front-line player to push his music in new directions – think Coltrane or Wayne Shorter - whereas Mobley operated along the lines of the quintessential sideman, expecting the leader to determine the way ahead.

If there were one criticism that held water, it was that Mobley was actually pushing the music backwards, towards the hackneyed practices of the classic Hard Bop quintet. Davis was also not a man to keep his feelings to himslef, and with such huge expectations on his shoulders, one would suspect that Mobley would have felt at best inappropriate, or at worst, inadequate. His response was to do what he did best, that is consolidate rather than innovate

This is demonstrated admirably on the two albums the Davis quintet recorded during their April 1961 residency at The Blackhawk in San Francisco. (Friday And Saturday Night at The Blackhawk COLUMBIA CS 8469/8470). The immediacy of a club setting helps the music considerably, with the aloof Davis coming across at times with an almost palpable sense of presence. However, the stars of these sets are Mobley and Kelly. Both men shine on Walkin', on the first disc, while Kelly is afforded the rare luxury of a feature number, an albeit brief exploration of Love I’ve Found You at the close of the record.

On the second 'Saturday' volume,  Mobley's best moments come on Sonny Rollins’ Oleo and Monk's Well You Needn't. Elsewhere he steps into Coltrane's shoes on the modal waltz originally recorded at the March 1961 studio dates, this time titled Neo. (Two further tracks from these sessions were subsequently issued on Columbia various artists sampler albums.)

Another live recording followed a month later, this time taped at a concert organised by the African Research Foundation held at New York's Carnegie Hall; it marks the end of Mobley's recorded appearances with Miles. Again, two volumes resulted: the original Miles Davis At Carnegie Hall (COLUMBIA CS 8612) LP was issued the following year, with the archive retrieval Live Miles finally appearing in 1987 (CBS CK 40609).Both sets have since been issued as a “complete' edition. Both contain superlative Mobley.

So What is the only title from the concert to feature both the entire Davis quintet and the Gil Evans orchestra. Evans was present principally to conduct several selections from his collaborative albums with Miles, but for the occasion he had also scored pianist Bill Evans’ ruminating introduction from the original studio version of So What for the full orchestra. It’s dark, dramatic impact is all but sabotaged when Paul Chambers peels off the famous bass intro at nearly double the tempo of the original, a practice that would increase, literally, on Davis's live appearances in the decade to come.

So What had quickly become something of a theme song for Davis after its debut on Kind Of Blue, but the version from Carnegie Hall belongs to Mobley, who offers up a delightful solo, strong in linear construction, rich in ideas, and owing nothing to Coltrane's oft-quoted outing on the original. His ability to weave idiosyncratic ideas into the fabric of his improvisations is at its most astute here, as he quotes from both March of the Siamese Children and Charlie Parker's Ah-Leu-Cha. There are also phrases which would turn up later in the year as the main melodic motifs for Hank's composition Gettin' and Jettin', as well as a reference to further future modal themes from his pen, such as The Vamp and Chain Reaction. Another version of Walkin' on Live Miles, is second best to So What and another example of Mobley's inexhaustible stream of ideas on blues changes.

Despite the quality of his sidemen's performances on both the Carnegie HaJl and Blackhawk albums, it is easy to understand why Davis probably regarded them as makeweight contract fillers. At any rate, there were already signs of unrest within the band, with Wynton Kelly keen to strike out on his own.

Hank Mobley remained with Davis until around early 1962, his place in the bands front-line sometimes augmented by trombonist J. J. Johnson (photographs of this line-up exist: sadly recordings do not).His own assessment of the time he spent with the trumpeter sits rather awkwardly with Davis's own recollections. He told Del Shields in 1965; 'I worked two and a half years with Miles and we never had a harsh word, just a lot of understanding'. (Liner note to Mobley's album The Turnaround, BLUE NOTE 84186, 1965).

As far as the influence that Davis exerted on Mobley is concerned, Ira Gitler wrote; 'Hank thinks he developed quite a bit when he was with Miles Davis Quintet. "People are always talking about how he leaves the stand and all that" says Mobley, "but Miles is always listening, even when he's at the bar" (Liner note to Mobley's album A Caddy For Daddy, BLUE NOTE 84230, 1966)

The legacy of his time with Davis can be felt on Mobley's initial post-Davis Blue Note LP, No Room For Squares (BLUE NOTE 84149) recorded in 1963, which mixes sessions with either Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan on trumpet. The title number is very close to Davis's modal experiments, as is Up A Step, a Mobley theme featuring Byrd at his most Miles-like. Compositionally, Mobley was coming into his own during this period, as he began to write themes that ran counter to the normal structural methods of Hard Bop, often incorporating lengthy modal vamps and passages that emphasied scalar rather than chordal improvisation.

His playing immediately post-Miles had also began to change. For starters, his sound, his most famous calling card, began to toughen considerably, lending his lines a more visceral feel, although it never reached the diamond-hardness of a Stitt, or the cello-richness of Rollins. His phrasing, always lithe and supple, began to break down into terse nagging fragments, interspersed with runs up to the high register. There was also now greater emphasis on using the bottom of the horn, and extensive use of the device of false-lingered rhythms played out on a single note to build up a certain tautological tension.

These facets can be found in all of Mobley's work up until his final recordings in the early 1970s. They can be traced equally to the self-acknowledged influence of his friend John Coltrane, but the simple fact is that they were not present in Mobley's playing before he joined Davis. In that, Davis's influence can be said to have brought about the gradual deconstruction of Mobley's already formed style. Even if he scarcely got Miles's approval, the trumpeter's influence loomed large on Mobley for the remainder of his career; even on his final Blue Note date, Thinkin' Of Home from 1970 (BLUE NOTE 84367) there is a composition, Justine that sounds like something that Davis could have dreamed up at any point between Someday My Prince Will Come and Miles In The Sky. In this, parallels can be drawn between Mobley and his ultimate Davis replacement, Wayne Shorter, another Newark-based player, who had acknoweldged how key and influence Mobley was early on in his career.  There is even a case for this influence working in reverse; 1969's The Flip (BLUE: NOTE 84329) has Mobley sounding uncannily like the Shorter of the Adam's Apple/Schizophrenia period.

Unlike Shorter, who shot to super-stardom with Weather Report in the early 1970s, Mobley's life took increasingly desperate and tragic turns in the years ahead. He saw out the 1960s in Europe, where he had fled to find work when appreciation of his talent at home was on the wane. There he recorded with players as diverse as Dizzy Reece and Archie Shepp, another tenorist for whom Miles Davis had little regard. Returning to the US in 1970, he made his last recording two years later in a quintet co-led with pianist Cedar Walton. Then came interminable periods of scuffling from city to city, from Chicago to Philadelphia and elsewhere. There were problems with respiratory diseases, an operation to remove a lung, and the theft of his only fully serviceable tenor. In the absence of a regular gig he could not afford a new horn and he tried to make a living occasionally playing alto or baritone saxes, as well as, continuing to compose many new themes. But life was futile. There was even a time spent living as a vagrant to add to these injustices.

A comeback attempt in the 1980's was foiled by an illness that finally transpired to be pneumonia, and his final recording -  a single track taped with Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu in 1980 – makes for heartbreaking listening.
Hank Mobley died in Philadelphia on May 30, 1986, aged 55, ironically at the very same time as his classic Blue Note recordings were beginning to reappear on CD. Reissued, these albums were greeted with far more critical generosity than they'd been afforded first time around, and, quite suddenly, Mobley was elevated posthumously to go-to-figure  status for younger players wanting to learn the ground rules of bop. His work with Davis too found itself reappraised, helping to overturn years of neglect. That is had suffered this fate was easy to understand: contained on albums which represent the period in which Davis was marking time between Kind Of Blue and the looser, more open music of the band featuring Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, it stood in the shadows of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, two of Davis's most ideal partners. Its quality is nonetheless first class; not perhaps equal in innovation terms to either that of Coltrane or Shorter, but just different. Indeed, Mobley's contributions to these recordings are firmly within his own quietly modest musical ambitions, and consequently should please anyone who has come to love and admire the work of this subtle, undersung voice of the tenor saxophone."


  1. Thanks for another great (with some proof-reading) review of Hank Mobley, my favorite sax player.

  2. Man, what a great article. So thorough and understanding of Mobley's greatness.
    He may not have been one of the great innovators, but Hank Mobley made real music, melodic, intelligent and always swinging.

  3. Always loved Hank. Saw him at Cafe Bohemia in the late 50s. His sound has endured and is finally appreicated.

  4. When I first heard Hank, I kinda passed over him because he sounded like so many others. When I started listening closely, however, I discovered he played with as much dexterity and originality as Trane, Sonny, or Dexter Gordon


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