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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 these 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.
Kenny Mathieson put some thoughts about Hank in a slightly different context when he wrote”
“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 fullest.” In Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65, [p. 153]
Well, it would seem that Kenny Mathieson and I along with legions of other Mobley supporters now have something to celebrate as Hank finally got some of the recognition he so justly deserves with his election to the Down Beat Hall of Fame via the 84th annual Readers Poll.
Here’s the article from the December 2019 edition of the magazine which announced this momentous occasion and describes the salient features of Hank’s background and the milestones in his Jazz career.
"Hank Mobley MASTER OF CONTRASTS" By Aaron Cohen
One night in November 1955, a cooperative then known as The Jazz Messengers took the stage of New York's Cafe Bohemia. Their performance would yield two albums (At The Cafe Bohemia, Volume 1 and Volume 2 on Blue Note) and help spark the rise of hard-bop.
“At 25 years old, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley should already have been widely acclaimed for what he brought to the ensemble: making tricky tempo changes sound easy, playing with a big, full sound on ballads and penning strong compositions. But when his name was introduced on the first night at the Cafe Bohemia, he received just a brief smattering of applause. That contrast between his incredible artistry and an audience's understated reaction encapsulates his career.
Critic Leonard Feather described Mobley as "the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone." Likely not intended to be disrespectful, the phrase implied that his sound was somewhere between a heavy, aggressive style (like Sonny Rollins), and gently swinging one (like Lester Young). But the "middleweight" designation left him underappreciated in the annals of jazz history.
Additionally, Mobley retreated from the public eye for a number of years, which earned him a reputation for reclusive-ness. Still, just as middleweight champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson inspired the legendary Muhammad AH, Mobley set the pace for many celebrated tenor saxophonists who followed his path, including his friend John Coltrane.
Now, with his induction into the DownBeat Hall of Fame more than 33 years after his death at age 55, Mobley s name has joined the ranks of the esteemed artists he influenced. Much of his best work has been assembled for the newly released eight-disc box set The Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions 1963-70 (Mosaic). The collection illustrates the evolution of Mobley's instantly identifiable sound and his unique compositional approach. His muted harmonic twists and flowing rhythmic exchanges—while often hewing close to the blues— offer a crucial statement on how jazz was transformed during that decade. Dissonance, electronic experimentation and more open-ended collective improvisation were not the only stylistic advances that marked what became known as "The '60s." Mobley's warm tone didn't necessarily coincide with cliches of the tumultuous era, as the saxophonist purposefully placed himself beyond perceived trends.
That individualism came across in one of his rare interviews, which he gave to writer John Litweiler for "Hank Mobley: The Integrity of the Artist-The Soul of the Man," which ran in the March 29,1973, issue of DownBeat.
Mobley said to Litweiler: "When I was about 18, [my uncle] told me, “‘If you're with somebody who plays loud, you play soft. If somebody plays fast, you play slow. If you try to play the same thing they're playing, you're in trouble.' Contrast."
That uncle, multi-instrumentalist Dave Mobley, encouraged the musical inclinations of his nephew, who picked up the tenor saxophone at around age 16. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mobley's experiences ranged from playing in r&b bands to a brief stint in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. But the bop revolution captured Mobley's passion as he started recording his own compositions in 1953, two years after drummer Max Roach brought him to New York.
In the early Jazz Messengers (before Art Blakey took the helm), Mobley's writing and improvisations incorporated advanced harmonic ideas while maintaining strong ties to the blues. On his mid-'50s Savoy records, Mobley's challenging compositions emboldened teenage trumpeter Lee Morgan, who would become one of the saxophonist's ongoing musical foils.
Blue Note signed Mobley as a bandleader in 1955, and for the next 15 years he would record extensively for the label. The fervor in his playing and writing while he was in his mid to late twenties remains astonishing. Mobley recorded one of his landmark albums. Soul Station, in 1960, highlighting how, as the sole horn player, he engaged with a formidable rhythm section of Blakey, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Wynton Kelly. The results are a triumph, especially the group's modern-leaning take on Irving Berlin's "Remember" and Mobleys assertiveness on his own "This I Dig Of You."
Mobley gained much wider attention when he joined Miles Davis' group in 1961. He plays on the trumpeter's album Someday My Prince Will Come, as well as two live LPs recorded at The Blackhawk in San Francisco. Mobley’s earlier experience with Chambers and Kelly, Davis' rhythm section stalwarts, proved valuable. The saxophonist's tone highlighted what he described as "not a big sound, not a small sound, but a round sound," most vividly on ballads. This approach blended impeccably with the bandleader's muted tone.
In the Davis biography So What, writer John Szwed noted that with Mobley’s blues inflections, "There was a hipness to his playing that reinforced Davis' popularity in black communities across America." But Davis did not speak so favorably about the saxophonist, and Coltrane and Wayne Shorter's roles with the trumpeter historically have overshadowed Mobley’s short tenure in the band.
Just after leaving Davis, Mobley said that he delved into a recurring drug addiction that frequently kept him away from performing and recording. While incarcerated for drug possession, he used prison time to compose, and his sound continued to evolve after each setback throughout the 1960s. Fortunately, as Blue Note Sessions shows, Mobley's record company stood by him, despite such episodes.
On 1964's No Room For Squares, Mobley conveyed quiet authority while allowing ample room for an especially spirited quintet. The group's unison lines on his "Three Way Split" give way to shifting rhythms in a fierce exchange among Mobley, bassist John Ore and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
Mobley extended his musical palette for the sextet LP A Caddy For Daddy (recorded in 1965). His waltz "The Morning After" sounds like it was written specifically for pianist McCoy Tyner.
Dippin' ("also recorded in 1965) featured pianist Harold Mabern, whose robust blues feeling was a quality he shared with the leader. Mabern, who spoke to Down Beat about two weeks prior to his Sept. 17 death, somewhat agreed with a consensus that Mobley could be personally withdrawn. But he described the saxophonist as far from distant.
"Hank was a joy to be around, he never created problems, never got loud and boisterous," Mabern said of the sessions that produced Dippin’ the only album the two musicians made together. "He was pure in heart. Those are the things that made the date easy for us, but he was no pushover: He knew what he wanted; you couldn't jive him."
Mobley did not always adhere to a standard format, as illustrated by his 1966 octet recording, A Slice Of The Top. His sharp timing and command of all registers remained steadfast while he created long choruses for a distinctive brass section that included euphonium and tuba. While Duke Pearson was nominally in charge of the arrangements, they flowed from Mobley's instructions. The tracks range from a waltz in 6/8 time ("Cute 'N Pretty") to the title track's multidirectional groove.
The groundbreaking LP sat unreleased until 1979, about six years after Mobley expressed frustration at the amount of his material sitting in the Blue Note vault. His exasperation seems understandable, and the new Mosaic collection includes tracks from five compelling albums that were recorded in the 1960s but not released until the late '70s and mid-'80s. Still, as Mosaic producer Michael Cuscuna pointed out, Mobley and his contemporaries — including Morgan, Jimmy Smith and Grant Green — created more tracks than any label could have been expected to issue around the time they were recorded.
During Mobley's last years in the studio, his work also included covers of r&b hits, like the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," as well as original compositions that emphasized immediately attractive melodies with repeating motifs, such as "The Flip." In some ways, these tracks show that after 20 years of invention, he never lost his feel for r&b.
Bassist Mickey Bass, who played on the saxophonist's 1970 Blue Note album, Thinking Of Home, said Mobley's compositional skills remained honed, regardless of the distractions or hardships he faced. "With both Hank and Lee Morgan, their genius was so great that in spite of their addictions, they would write out most of the tunes for the record date in the cab on the way to rehearsal," Bass recalled. "That genius was unheard of at that particular time."
In 1972, Mobley recorded his last album, Breakthrough, a collaboration with pianist Cedar Walton. (It was released on the Cobblestone label and later reissued by Muse).
Mobley continued his peripatetic lifestyle in the years that followed, but with the possibility of new music always out there. At the time of his 1973 DownBeat interview, Chicago was his home and he had started working with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. No recording of the two is known to exist, which is a shame. Mobley's final years remain mysterious, but he was known to have suffered from lung cancer and bouts of homelessness. It’s conceivable that he saw how his advanced ideas for composing and arranging on A Slice Of The Top became part of the lexicon for some of the groups coming out of Abrams' Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
As Bob Blumenthal writes in the liner notes to Blue Note Sessions, Mobley did achieve a moment of acclaim shortly before his death. When Blue Note experienced its rebirth in 1985, the label invited him to participate in a relaunch concert at New York's Town Hall. Mobley appeared at the event, but he chose to speak to the audience, rather than perform. In some regard, he didn't have to, as everyone present seemed to acknowledge that the label, and jazz itself, had thrived because of Mobley's contributions.”