Wednesday, June 19, 2019

More Mobley - A Slice Of The Top - The John Litweiler Notes

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

My thanks to Bob Blumenthal for hipping me to the notes by John Litweiler to Hank Mobley’s 1979 A Slice of the Top Blue Note LP [33582] which was released on CD in 1995 [Connoisseur Series CDP 7243 8 33582 2 9]. They contain information which was not included in the interview with Hank by John Litweiler which was published in the March 29, 1973 issue of Downbeat.

Incidentally, Bob is currently hard at work writing the notes for the booklet that will accompany The Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions, 1963-1970 - an 8 CD set - that Mosaic Records will issue later this year.

The Litweiler notes to A Slice of the Top join previous posts about Hank which include the aforementioned March 29, 1973 Downbeat Litweiler interview, Bob Blumenthal’s detailed writings in the booklet that accompanies the Mosaic Records set The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions [MD6-131], the two articles in the defunct British Magazine Jazz Monthly from 1961 and 1962 that were written by Michael James who is also Hank’s chronicler in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld, the chapter on Hank in Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-65, the specific references to Hank’s recordings for the label in Richard Cook’s The Biography of Blue Note Records [Secker and Warburg/London -2001] and the ongoing editions of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD edited and annotated by Richard Cook and Brian Morton, further commentaries on Hank and his music in the works of Jack Chambers and Gary Giddins, Joe Goldberg’s insert notes to Hank’s Soul Station Blue Note LP, the full length treatment of Hank’s oeuvre in Workout—The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell [Northway, 2008], Larry Kart’s insert notes to Hank Mobley’s Poppin’ CD, and Larry’s Hank Mobley - A Posthumous Appreciation, a chapter in his Jazz in Search of Itself [Yale University Press, 2004], Looking East: Hank Mobley in Europe, 1968 - 1970, an essay by Simon Spillett, and Simon’s updated Hank Mobley’s Recordings with Miles Davis.

And in our efforts to collectively publish all-things-Mobley, we have also posted a two part piece about the program and the booklet from the memoriam to Hank Mobley and his music, on Monday, October 29, 1990, Don Sickler with the assistance of Kimberly Ewing produced "My Groove, Your Move" - The Music of Hank Mobley” which was performed at the Weill Recital Hall located in Carnegie Hall in New York City.


“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

Hank Mobley grew up in the Newark, New Jersey area, heir to a family of musical tradition: grandmother Emma Mobley was a pioneer Black opera singer, and uncle Dan Mobley, a multi-instrumentalist, "had a jazz band like Count Basie or the Savoy Sultans. My mother wasn't a musician but if you played something that didn't sound right to her, she couldn't pat her foot to it, she'd probably throw her chair at you." Largely self-taught or informally instructed on, first alto, then tenor and baritone saxes, Mobley made his reputation early, and at age 19 began a happy period with pianist Paul Gayten's band, backing singers on the eastern rhythm-and-blues circuit. In 1951, he was just 21 and working in the house band of a Newark club when Max Roach hired him to play tenor.

His subsequent career can be condensed into a remarkable resume: with Roach until 1953, briefly again with Gayten, two weeks with Duke Ellington, a summer with Clifford Brown in Tadd Dameron's band, then a year with Dizzy Gillespie. A co-founder of the Jazz Messengers, he spent crucial years with Art Blakey and Horace Silver, and in the mid-'50s Mobley and John Coltrane were certainly the most active tenor saxophonists on the New York recording scene (the largest block of his five or six dozen records as leader or sideman are from this period). There were two weeks with Thelonious Monk in 1957, return tours with Roach and Blakey, but 2 1/2 years with Miles Davis, beginning in 1961, were a kind of career peak, particularly in the Blue Note albums he directed in those years. He freelanced in the mid-'60s, sometimes co-leading a cooperative group with Lee Morgan, until he left the U.S. in 1968.

History does not record the names of either the first cop to fill his arrest quota by busting defenseless kids on fraudulent charges, or the first lawyer who advised his innocent client to plead guilty in order to insure a light sentence. Too bad — those two began what must be by now a multi-million dollar business, which is, of course, what makes America great. Hank Mobley's first conviction on possession of heroin charges came at least three years before he ever used the stuff, and probation was the result. He traces his "criminal" record to the long-lingering shadow of the deliriously wretched Senator McCarthy; there were two extended savagely corroded spaces in Mobley's life after his second and third narcotics convictions, in the late '50s and again in 1964. He wrote the songs for this LP in prison, with Davis' Birth Of The Cool band in mind, then handed the music and detailed instruction to Duke Pearson in 1966. "I told him I wanted the tuba to come up this way, the other instruments to come up that way"— and Mobley hums the opening of "A Touch Of The Blues." "Duke Pearson's good with the pen. I told him, 'If I do it (write the orchestrations), I might take two weeks, but you can do it in a day.'"

Of Mobley's partners here, the two lower brass players do not solo. James Spaulding's alto solos betray his earlier experiences in a transitional Sun Ra band, incorporating as they do a soul sax style and agitated near-outside playing. The rest of the band appeared exactly three months earlier on Mobley's A Caddy For Daddy session; McCoy Tyner, soon to leave John Coltrane's famous quartet, especially fine in "A Slice Of The Top," adapting Coltrane's style to the piano in "Hank's Other Bag"; Billy Higgins, Blue Note's house drummer, precise and swinging as ever, particularly and increasingly inspired by Mobley and Lee Morgan in "A Touch Of The Blues." As to the trumpeter, long sections of his "A Touch Of The Blues" and "Hank's Other Bag" solos use entirely Mobley phrasing, inspiring the old question of whether Mobley once taught Morgan some techniques of improvisation, "Oh, yes" says Mobley and he reels off a list of a dozen or so jazzmen, primarily from the Newark area, who've profited from his ideas, including such obvious names as Morgan and Wayne Shorter, and some surprises as well—"my little brother."

"I feel like Charlie Parker," he says: indeed, his earlier style was largely founded in an extremely keen understanding of the subtleties of the rhythmic inner content and implications of Parker's phrasing — but even this expansive description limits our view of Mobley's achievement. From the

beginning, his talented uncle emphasized the importance of musical contrast, and so Mobley discovered and internalized all kinds of contrasts in his playing: straight ahead vs. decorative lines, bold melodies vs. understatement, horizontal vs. simple vertical playing, great rhythmic spontaneity. He once described his ideal tenor sax sound: "Not a big sound, not a small sound, but a round sound." Though always agreeable, the character of his sound tended to vary on his earlier recordings; in the '60s, his sound achieved a three-dimensional roundness as his expressive capabilities and his confidence in the tenor's higher and lower ranges expanded.

On this date, his sound is ideal; in "Hank's Other Bag," for example, much of the listener's pleasure lies in savoring the beauty of Mobley's tone. He credits the influence of Davis and Coltrane with the '60s simplification of his style, for he consciously abandoned some degree of high detail in favor of concentrating his rhythmic energies. Indeed, he incorporated some of Coltrane's harmonic adventures into his mature style, as you can hear in the tenor solos on side two—a solo such as "A Touch Of The Blues," which consists largely of simple rhythmic figures, would have been inconceivable a few years earlier, and the threads of rhythmic contrast, shifting accents, and call-and-response with the band that he weaves all combine effectively. A special characteristic of his work in the post-1964 period, too, is the unusual structure of his compositions: the 40-bar "A Touch Of The Blues," the strange oriental vamp which is 16 measures of the 24-bar "Slice Of The Top," the vamp which dominates his minor waltz "Cute 'N' Pretty," "Hank's Other Bag" at least appears to be in the familiar territory of his beast hard bop themes, but again Mobley's writing is deceptive: the melody takes a bright, hip twist, and it's a 28-bar structure. All this may be some distance removed from standard post-bop practice, but Mobley and his players readily master these outlines—all were experienced in modal playing this time, and Mobley's out-stretched changes tend to nonetheless close to me classic blues.

The one standard in this program, "Lull In My Life," is a ballad, for Mobley is one of the special artists whose expository gifts make ballads meaningful without altering their original content. The striking second chorus improvisation is a rhythmic thicket, as Mobley adds double time melodies to Higgins' own double time — a denser work than his "Other Bag" solo, which begins in the best harp bop melodic style and evolved into happy rhythmic playing. Perhaps the most remarkable Mobley solo here is "Cute 'N Pretty," set in relief by the other soloists' involvement with the 6/4 time. Mobley plays with the meter, tossing off phrases in four and eight, contrasting them with each other and with his waltz lines, for among these players he is certainly the most confident and imaginative waltz dancer. The mastery displayed in "Cute" especially, but in the other solos, too, emphasizes again the importance of absolutely pinpoint timing of his phrases: the least lapse of rhythmic acuity, and the fine tension of Mobley's careful line could come to an irrevocable halt. For the control and grace, the lack of belligerence in Mobley's music are deceptive: an urgent internal, very personal intensity is at the heart of his art, an all-compelling involvement in which every nerve and every fiber of the imagination strain to create an ever-changing web of rhythmic dares to his aggressive rhythm section—"The beat, they've got to have that beat!"

Hank Mobley recorded five more albums for Blue Note after this session; the ones immediately preceding and immediately following his 1969-70 European sojourn remain undiscovered in the ongoing search of the Blue Note archives. The 1970s have been far from rewarding for him. He lived in New York for two periods, in Chicago for some months (where he led a remarkable quintet, including drummer Wilbur Campbell and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and composed music for the AACM Big Band that Abrams led). There was a year in East Orange, New Jersey, and in the mid-decade Mobley settled in Philadelphia. Work has been intermittent at best. Two lung operations rendered him musically inactive for long periods; a bureaucratic foul up with his birth certificate prevented a European festival trip; he's had two tenor saxophones stolen, and his remaining tenor leaks ("The doctor told me not to play it, or I might blow one of my lungs out"). As of this writing, he lacks the funds to purchase a new, adequate saxophone.

"It's hard for me to think of what could be and what should have been. I lived with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk; I walked with them up and down the street. I did not know what it meant when I listened to them cry—until it happened to me." In the last year or so Mobley has begun to reappear in Philadelphia area clubs, often sitting in at sessions, sometimes playing alto or baritone. He continues to compose steadily, and, of course, hopes to add to the 80-odd Mobley compositions that have been recorded to date.”
—John B. Litweiler July, 1979

1 comment:

  1. I was lucky enough to see Hank perform at a rare appearance in Brooklyns Coronet Club during his last years. I've been trying to find info as to whom was playing alng with him without success. Maybe some information will be tucked into some of the extensive materials in this box set. Looking forward to it...


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