BY BENSON IDONIJE
WHEN the great critic, Leonard Feather described Hank Mobley as “the middle weight champion of the tenor,” he did not mean it in a pejorative sense. It was not intended to rubbish Mobley’s musicianship, neither was it intended to denigrate his efforts. It was a mere metaphorical phrase to describe the quality and situation of Hank Mobley’s tenor saxophone in relation to the others.
As a critic, Leonard Feather was only trying to paint a vivid picture as a means of expressing himself. Yet, it has come to be construed implicitly as meaning lightweight in both sound and content. And this is sad, considering the legendary stature of Mobley on the instrument.
Feather dubbed Mobley the middleweight champion of the tenor because his tone fell between that of Rollins at the heavy end and Lester Young at the other. All of these musicians have their brilliant qualities, depending on the ideas driven into the saxophone. True, the intensity of the sound and its tonal concept are important, but these qualities appeal to people in different ways. Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet had a light tone on the alto saxophone and was admired by many people.
Maybe this is carrying the argument to a ridiculous extreme, but let’s come to terms with the tenor saxophone where Mobley was rated highly, ranking shoulder to shoulder with some of the tenor giants.
It would be wrong however to compare Mobley with Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and the likes as tenor titan, but he could certainly hold his own alongside pretty much anyone else. His tone was lighter than any of them including Lester Young, yet it was substantial enough for his purposes. In a number of respects, it was similar to early ’50s Rollins, though it was round rather than big, self possessed rather than assertive, warmly smooth rather than brightly burnished.
Lacking in opinion of their own, several critics have denied Hank Mobley a place in the company of tenor greats. In my opinion, Mobley is one of the most lyrical saxophonists I have ever heard. I have been listening to him from the days of the Jazz Messengers when he occupied the tenor saxophone chair with Horace Silver on piano; Jackie McLean, alto saxophone and Donald Byrd on trumpet. He created brilliant phrases as a soloist. He sang into his horn.
In addition to the misconception that Feather created with the metaphorical expression, Miles Davis, who was difficult to please, also contributed to this unfair assessment of Hank Mobley who was one of a series of caretakers of the saxophone post in Davis’ quintet after the departure of John Coltrane. There was the often-reported occasion on which, during one of Mobley’s solos, Davis peered out at the audience and announced, “Any time Sonny Rollins shows up with his horn, he’s got the job.” Davis was quoted as saying in later years in his auto biography, “the music was starting to bore me because I didn’t like what Mobley was doing in the band, he didn’t stimulate my imagination.”
I guess this says more about Miles Davis than Mobley, who successfully stimulated the imagination of devotees like me and fellow musicians such as Benny Golson, the great composer of I remember Clifford, a tribute to the trumpeter Clifford Brown and a song that has become a classic. Mobley was greatly admired by a host of other musicians including the trumpeter, Donald Byrd who rated Mobley alongside Rollins. Mobley was also adored by the management of Blue Note, for whom he made numerous fine albums as both leader and sideman.
Never the most patient of men, Miles Davis was always in the process of reaching out restlessly to higher levels of creativity, an obsession which in fact almost blinded him to the reality of the authentic jazz played by his sidemen. He was also still bitter about John Coltrane who had left to form his memorable quartet of himself on tenor and soprano saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. It is likely that the depression and dissatisfaction with the music created a vicious spiral, and Mobley got sucked and spat out by it.
Hank Mobley, one of jazz’s tenor giants, came into the limelight in the ’50s, when, after working with many established up-coming figures, he spent 1954 with Dizzy Gillespie. By the time of his last recording with Gillespie in September 1954, he was preparing to join pianist Horace Silver’s new quartet for an engagement at Minton’s.
Soon after, Silver was asked to put together a quintet for a Blue Note session, and brought Kenny Dorham and Art Blakey to join Mobley and Dong Watkins from the Minton’s group. They first went into the studio on November 13 and cut Room 608, Creepin’, Doodliln’ and Stop Time. Four more tracks – Hippy, To whom it may concern, Hankerin and The Preacher were made on February 6, 1955.
Initially issued under the banner of the Horace Silver Quintet, all eight would eventually appear on LP under the title… and the Jazz Messengers, an album widely regarded as an canonical document in the genesis of hard bop.
Between the Messenger’s sessions, Mobley recorded with sextets led by Durham and Julius Watkins. Then, on March 27, 1955 came the first session under his own name, a quartet comprising the Messenger’s rhythm section: Silver, Watkins and Blakey.
Mobley played alongside Coltrane on a number of occasions, and whilst Coltrane was the stronger voice, he by no means eclipsed Mobley. He had to compete with a ravishingly beautiful solo by Coltrane, and did so effectively with a lighter-toned, less voluptuous but elegantly-phrased and well-constructed solo. If Mobley hadn’t yet established a unique personal sound, his solos were fluent, bristling with enthusiasm and interesting ideas. This was in 1956.
Mobley held his own in 1957, when in April, he appeared as part of the Johnny Griffin Septet sessions for Blue Note issued as Blowing Session, with a frontline of Lee Morgan, trumpet; Johnny Griffin, tenor saxophone; John Coltrane, tenor saxophone. Mobley’s mature sound was now developing and there were further strong hints of his later, more oblique manner of phrasing in relation to the beat.
I started admiring Hank Mobley from his stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, but my admiration became heightened with his membership of the Miles Davis quintet and the two albums recorded at San Francisco’s Blackhawk Club in April 1961. These sessions are among my favourite Davis efforts on account of Mobley’s contribution as a soloist of no mean feat. As a contrast to Coltrane’s long winding choruses which could sometimes be boring, Mobley’s well instructed solos are refreshing.
This concert featuring Davis’ quintet in 1961 with Gil Evans Orchestra was taped secretly and against Davis’ wishes by producer Teo Macero. Davis felt that both the quintet and orchestra programme was already adequately represented on record; as well as pieces from Miles ahead and Sketches from Spain several of the quintet numbers duplicated those on Someday My Prince Will Come and the Blackhawk sessions, though the Carnegie hall versions generally have much more of an edge than the studio performances.
Mobley plays superbly on all the tracks where he is featured – Teo, Walkin’, I thought about you, No blues, Oleo.
One finds it hard to accept Davis’ criticisms as valid, especially since he was happy enough to employ Sonny Stitt before and George Coleman after. Neither of these men was any less stuck in the bop rut than Mobley.