Hank Mobley: Blue Note '50s


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If the hard bop movement had a musical voice of reason, it was Hank Mobley. Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Elmo Hope, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and others certainly were significant players who helped develop and define the jazz style's exciting fanning sound and expressive ambitions. But Mobley—as Blue Note's house tenor saxophonist—was hard bop's iron man, its anchor and dependable force. [Photo above of Hank Mobley and Blue Note owner-producer Alfred Lion by Francis Wolff]

Unfortunately, Mobley's grace and mighty skill are being forgotten of late—overshaddowed by solo marvels Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, as well as other prolific recording dynamos like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins among others.

As a musician who recorded relentlessly in hard bop quintets and sextets in the '50s—keeping Blue Note 12-inch LP machines humming—Mobley's silky technical skills, smokey timbre and seamless solos have faded into the background of our consciousness. I suspect if I were to ask readers for a list of their 10 favorite '50s saxophonists, Mobley would be left out of most tallies. And if those same fans were then asked, “Hey, what about Hank Mobley?," nearly all would bump someone off to make room.

Only now can Mobley's gifts be fully appreciated. That's what happens over time. With distance and extensive listening to the same artists comes perspective and renewed interest in other giants. Between 1955 and 1958, Mobely recorded nine studio albums for Blue Note as a leader. Of course, there were many other sessions for labels such as Prestige and Savoy as well as plenty of sideman dates for Blue Note.

But Mobley's role as a commanding industrial mixer—stirring together all of a session's hard bop ingredients—is best sampled on these leadership dates. Mobley came to mind recently when I saw an email from Mosaic mentioning that The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions boxed sets were running low. 

Pulling down the six-CD set for another run through and read of the liner notes, I came across fresh discoveries. For example, Mobley's ability to play swiftly on up-tempto tunes like Hank's Prank but somehow leave enough space to make it sound as though he were playing slow. Or his fabulous gift as a hard-bop composer (Just Coolin', Double Whammy and Funk in Deep Freeze).

Or the way his reed sounds like a fur coat being draped around the sharp, punctuating sound of trumpeters Lee Morgan, Art Farmer and Donald Byrd. Or his majestic pairing with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams (on the album Poppin'). Or his plucky lyricism on standards (My Reverie, Darn That Dream).

What's most interesting about the Mosaic set is that you hear Mobley in nine different ensemble settings—each of them special. In 1956 alone, Mobley recorded 16 albums, and they were hardly throwaways. Among them were Silver's Blue, Tenor Conclave, Introducing Lee Morgan, 8 Pieces of Silver, Farmer's Market and All Night Long. And there were another 15 albums in '58.

And maybe that's the problem. There was so much Mobley in the '50s that it's easy to think of him as part of the Blue Note furniture. Such a conclusion, even if unintended, is terribly unfair. As these corralled leadership dates demonstrate, Mobley still shines and does so particularly well when uninterrupted by other players.

Of course, all of this begs the question: Why didn't Mobley go out on his own? One suspects the answer rests with his own comfort level. Better to be working steadily as part of a successful New York team than touring relentlessly and competing for recording work and club audiences with the likes of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

All I can say is, if you want this Mosaic set, you had been put in your order. Looks like it's on back order.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions (Mosaic) here.

The Blue Note albums in this six-CD box include: The Hank Mobley Quartet (1955), Hank Mobley Sextet (1956), Hank Mobley and His All-Stars (1957), Hank Mobley Quintet (1957), Hank (1957), Hank Mobley (1957), Curtain Call (1957), Poppin' (1957) and Peckin' Time (1958).

The set's liner notes are by Bob Blumenthal.

By the way, it looks like Mosaic has redesigned its home page and added a blog that features sage commentary by Michael Cuscuna. Go to the label's home page here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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