In the Unsung Hero business some are more unsung than others, and Hank Mobley ranks with the most surpassingly unsung. But this is no distinction; it is a tragedy. Miles Davis dissed him, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins overshadowed him, and the avant-garde and fusion cast him into penniless obscurity. By the time he died in 1986 at the age of 55, he was largely forgotten. But who knows? If the great Hidden Hand had sent him into the world in 1910 instead of 1930, he might be recognized today as one of the all-time giants of the tenor saxophone. Certainly in 1999 he deserves another look.
Hank Mobley played a sweet tenor. He could play - and often played - r&b-tinged jazz; indeed, along with trumpeter Lee Morgan he became one of the foremost practitioners of this paleo-fusion in the Fifties and Sixties. But he was not a hooting, booting, keening, screaming r&b artist. Instead, he built his solos with an easygoing inexorability, building idea upon idea until the listening found himself, all unaware, transported to realms that lesser players could only dream of reaching, no matter how much they screamed.
The musicians knew. Mobley was so often in the company of titans that it's a wonder that he wasn't recognized as their peer. He played with Max Roach in the early Fifties, as well as Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, and Elvin Jones. But Sonny Rollins owned the Fifties and John Coltrane quickly claimed the Sixties. By the time jazz was breaking up in the late Sixties Mobley was as confused as everyone else, and was recording shallow, perfunctory versions of pop hits in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture an audience.
But before that, although largely unnoticed, he was golden. He recorded one of the greatest jazz albums ever, Soul Station. He held his own with Coltrane (and Zoot Sims and Al Cohn) on Tenor Conclave. He compiled a body of work that deserves the notice of anyone who loves jazz today.
If you like Josh Redman, or Javon Jackson, or Branford, any reedman who's ever played with Wynton, check out Hank Mobley, the daddy of them all.