Hank Mobley, The Master of Contrasts

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Hank Mobley (1930–1986)

(Photo: Francis Wolff ©Mosaic Images LLC/mosaicrecordsimages.com)

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 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 reclusiveness. Still, just as middleweight champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson inspired the legendary Muhammad Ali, 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 clichés 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 Mobley’s 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 DownBeat 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.

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