Saturday, November 24, 2018

Hank Mobley - Michael James in Jazz Monthly, 1962

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

Thanks to a Jazz mate in New Zealand, this second, rare article on Hank Mobley by Michael James from the short-lived Jazz Monthly magazine is now available as part of our ongoing series about Hank and his music.

Michael James wrote the annotation about Hank Mobley that appears in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Barry Kernfeld, editor, in which he references in the bibliography two articles that he wrote about Hank for Jazz Monthly; one in 1961 and another in 1962.

Along with the recent published on the blog of Simon Spillett pieces -”Hank Mobley’s recordings with Miles Davis - UPDATED” and  “Looking East: Hank Mobley in Europe 1968-1970,” the John Litweiler interview that appeared in Downbeat in 1973, Bob Blumenthal’s booklet notes to the Mosaic Records box set of Hank’s 1950s Blue Note recordings and Derek Ansell’s book Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley which was published by Northway in 2008, the two Jazz Monthly essays by James are the most extensive writings ever done about Hank’s career, especially its early years.

Of course, there’s a whole host of sleeve or insert notes to the 26 LPs that Hank recorded for Blue Note and we’ll be presenting separately from the body of article on Hank in the Jazz literature.

Yet, sadly, the James articles are virtually unknown [let alone virtually impossible to find].

For my taste, Michael’s style of writing is a bit too complicated and convoluted in places, but I doubt you’ll find a more thorough and exacting description of Hank Mobley’s style, both improvisationally and compositionally, in any other source on Hank [meager though they are].

Here is the second of Michael’s pieces on Hank which appeared in Jazz Monthly, viii/10, 1962. The paragraphing has been modified to make it easier to read in a blog format.

Only since, 1958 or thereabouts has Hank Mobley been a really consistent player. Before that he could not always be counted on to turn in performances of a high order. This weakness derived not so much from lack of imaginativeness as from an intermittent failure properly to translate into musical terms the intricacies of the ideas that entered his mind. It may be that the light tone he favoured at that time, a tone which reminds one of Ihe Stan Gelz of 1950 more readily than of any other saxophonist, aggravated the problem of executing rhythmically complex phrases with the necessary precision; and it is probably no coincidence that since 1958 the sound he has produced has been firmer texture than it usually was before. However, there are several albums from this earlier phase of his career that do contain some really brilliant tenor playing; and at least one wherein he maintains a musical level akin to that of his more recent work.

This record, entitled quite simply Hank Mobley, and released in the United States (though not, as yet, in Britain) as Blue Note BLP 1568 has further attractions in that it finds Mobley supported by a cast whose quality is as undeniable to this observer as its reputation amongst the more conservative critics wait, and in some cases still is highly dubious. For the purposes of the session, which was held on June 3rd, 1957. Mobley chose Art Blakey's current trumpeter, Bill Hardman. and Charles Mingus's alto and tenor saxophonist. Curtis Porter, now better known as Shafi Hadi, to complete the front line; whilst the rhythm section was made up of Sonny Clark on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and the ubiquitous Art Taylor ai the drums. The material was obviously selected with the same eye for variety comprising as it does three original themes, two from Porter's pen and one by the leader: an engaging but not overworked evergreen, Falling in Love With Love; and a virtual classic of the modern jazz repertoire. Milt Jackson's Bag’s Groove. It is a safe bet that not many record companies would have been prepared to chance their arm with so evidently uncommercial a choice of tunes and personnel, and a portion of the credit for the date's artistic success must go to the Blue Note directors themselves,  whose sensitive handling of musicians —witness Max Harrison's recent remark apropos of a Bud Powell release - has paid rich dividends on other occasions.

Mighty Moe and Joe, the opening tune, was written by Porter. In his helpful sleeve note Ira Gitler explains that this composition is dedicated both to bassist Ollie Mohammed and to tenor player Joe Alexander, whose robust work was so agreeable a feature of Tadd Dameron's Fontainebleau album. The first and third eights are couched in question-and-answer form with the other two horns replying to Porter's urgent alto figures. The piece also composes an opening vamp played by the horns and an eight-bar bridge passage which leads into the first solo, taken by Porter. His alto playing is distinguished by a remarkable variety of melodic shapes, the attack of a whiplash, and a tonal command whose virtuosity very nearly rivals Dizzy Gillespie's. Some notes he invests with a fast, plaintive vibrato: others, with a hoarseness which in the context emerges as the very acme of ferocity; whilst others still he plays with a hard, clean sound as if to intensify the effect of those that are coloured or distorted in any way. His style, in fact, is an original one, though evolved, broadly speaking, within the Parker tradition.

Bill Hardman, who follows him, is an individualist of the same stamp. Having dealt with his work at some length in the December 1961 issue of this magazine, I shall not go into detail here, except to mention his liking for multi-noted phrases that often start with a flourish in the high register before cascading downward through the range; his obstinately asymmetrical approach: and his use of a thin, brassy tone which, supplemented by the slurs and inflections that also characterise his style, makes for an atmosphere of nervous violence.

Hank Mobley takes over from the trumpeter so confidently that one feels sure he will play well throughout the record, and this impression, I hasten to add. is fulfilled to the letter. His solo evokes in a more logical way than Hardman's, and is also a shade better constructed than Porter's. His melodies move across and over the beat with great freedom, yet never sound gauche or rhythmically spineless, and his tone and execution contrast effectively with Porter's clipped, astringent attack.

Sonny Clark, the next soloist, programmes his improvisation intelligently. Starting with fragmented phrases that suggest he may have been affected by Silver's conception at that time, he very soon resolves the tension thus created with a succession of longer figures more reminiscent of his present keyboard approach. As always, his solo here benefits from that unforced, seemingly natural swing that he has possessed ever since be made his first records. A bowed passage by Chambers leads back into the theme and the track closes with a repetition of the bridge section which preceded Porter's opening solo and of the vamp that served as an introduction. The fade-out ending, which seems to me unjustified, is fortunately the only instance of its kind in the album.
Not unnaturally with musicians of this calibre, the various soloists do not change their basic conceptions to any marked degree in the other pieces; so rather than subject each track to the same sort of examination as I have accorded Mighty Moe and Joe, I shall ask the reader to assume that, unless otherwise stated, the members of the group function in a similar way and at a similar level, and shall limit myself to picking out the highlights.

News,  Porter's other contribution to the repertoire employed at this session, is certainly one of these. I think it its best described as a personal and very successful adaptation of Tadd Dameron's compositional method. Porter achieves the same sort of flexible melodic line m the main eights, a line that splits at times to give the piece a slight contrapuntal flavour, but which makes its impact chiefly through the richness of the trumpet-led voicings: and the release, too, recalls Dameron, comprising as it does a rhythmically contrasting section set over a Latin beat. Although this composition in less personal than the other one Porter contribute to the date, the craftsmanship of which it clearly speaks affords us a more exact notion of his potential as a writer. To leave News without mentioning Mobley's solo would be an injustice. His phrases grow more and more complex in shape until at the end of the first eight of the second chorus he resorts to some well-executed double-timing. At this point it seems that he is about to lose all sense of structural compactness, but he rescues the situation halfway through the release, and his last twelve 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. In this connexion credit must also be given to Art Taylor, whose accompaniment to the tenor solo connotes a deep understanding of Mobley's style.

In his written work Mobley has never been compromised by the uncertainty which marred certain of his earlier solos, and has often dealt in shapes that are sparer in outline if just as free of the beat. This is very much the case with Double Exposure, for each of its three main eight-bar constituents ends with a descending phrase comprising three groups of two notes each. Also of interest is the introduction, which comprises a written figure for the horns followed by a drum break, reversed, this introduction acts as a bridge between the theme statement and the solo sections, and minus the drum break is also pressed into service as a coda. Everyone except Paul Chambers is featured in this piece, even Art Taylor taking a solo chorus.

Particularly well worth noting is the two-chorus chase between the tenor players. It was a wise decision, I think, to have them share sections of eight bars rather than of the more customary four, because both like to indulge in fairly long runs. Mobley leads off this series of exchanges and to my mind emerges as slightly the more polished and inventive artist, though the emphasis is not so much on rivalry as on musical contrast. The third of his breaks, which consists of an intricate yet graceful molif that rises by degrees out of the lower register, is especially arresting.

Although Mighty Moe and Joe of is taken at a livelier pace than the other pieces so far dealt with, all three are set in a fairly bright tempo range. This is not the case with Bag’s Groove, even though the band's interpretation of it is faster than the original Miles Davis recording. My first impression on hearing this track was that the slight increase in tempo was an error of taste, but I have now come to accept this difference and feel that I was perhaps prejudiced by my great affection for the Davis version, and have also grown more partial to the piano figures with which Clark answers each of the three identical phrases that make up this simple yet highly evocative blues composition. The mood established by the soloists is less exuberant than in the three originals, and all, including Paul Chambers, who contributes two plucked choruses, reach a high creative standard in this most revealing of jazz forms. Particularly affecting is Hardman's exceptionally sober improvisation. Over the course of his three choruses he builds up the tension with extended phrases. that reveal a harmonic conception which is free but by no means wilfully eccentric, and then releases this tension at the close with a characteristically drawn-out motif. A curious point about this passage. and one that probably helps explain its insidious effect is that in contrast with conventional methods, the trumpeter plays more softly as it moves toward its climax.

Falling in Love With Love, which has Porter playing alto, as in the opening selection, is taken at the kind of ambling pace which best brings out its wistful charm. Hardman, working over the rhythm section's relaxed beat opens with a highly personal reading of the melody, similar to the treatment he was later to accord Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise in Lou Donaldson's Sunny Side Up album. Obviously inspired by the trumpeter's incisive statement of the theme. Mobley takes over from him to construct an essentially romantic variation on its melody, and then, after choruses by Porter and Clark, returns to like vein to bring the performance to its close. His work here, distinguished by acute melodic sensitivity and a tonal command that is all the more impressive in view of the leisurely tempo and the sustaining of notes it induces, seems to me the artistic peak of the album, and serves. incidentally, to remind us of the emotional breadth of Mobley's talent.

Any musician who can interpret a ballad with the finesse of a Stan Getz — and this is no casual comparison — and then, only three years or so later, delineate, in his solo in on Roll Call, a state of mind that can only be termed the epitome of aggressiveness, is clearly possessed of extraordinary potential. Bearing this in mind, it seems lively that although he has already matured as a consistently engaging player, his expressive powers will continue to broaden as the years go by. The thought that one is privileged meanwhile to follow the unfolding of such talent makes listening to records like this still more enjoyable.”

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