Recording date: February 7th, 1960 at the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs
RVG Remaster: March 23rd 1999
Availabilty: CD, MP3 download, iTunes
Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone)
Wynton Kelly (piano)
Paul Chambers (bass)
Art Blakey (drums)
Remember, This I Dig Of You, Dig Dis, Split Feelin's, Soul Station, If I Should Lose You
Hank Mobley was extensively recorded by Blue Note in the 50's and 60's and yet his career ended in near obscurity. It is only through the gradual piecing together of his recorded output via legacy CD issues and reissues that the full extent of his contribution to jazz (and hard bop in particular) has been uncovered.
Part of this is due to the privacy of the man; in a career that spanned thirty years, he is reliably reported to have given only three interviews. Part is due to the dire straits that mainstream jazz entered in the early seventies when soul and progressive pop took away most of the black and then the young intellectual audience and to compete those that survived in jazz played fusion. Hank Mobley largely refused to compromise or adapt, he carried on with the personal project of elaborating on his music and his creativity and as a result was all but forgotten by the time of his death.
And then there was the toll taken by heroin addiction and the ill health that led to the lung problems that are the fear of every horn player.
He was born on July 7th 1930 in Eastman, growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It was a musical family and after playing piano as a youngster, he took up the saxophone at age 16, modeling himself on Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. His earliest recording, at age just 20, was with the Paul Gayten Orchestra in 1950 for the Regal label.
While playing in a Newark club, he was hired by Max Roach and in 1953 he appeared on the Fantasy album "Max Roach Quartet". He also spent time in the following year working with and learning from Dizzy Gillespie before joining the Horace Silver Band that morphed into the Jazz Messengers. The February 1955 album "Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers" brought him to the attention of Blue Note and by March 1955 he had produced his first album for them as leader, "Hank Mobley Quartet".
In an astounding period of creativity, he appeared on 43 albums in the next two and a half years - 7 further albums in 1955, 21 albums in 1956 (6 as leader) and 15 in 1957 (7 as leader). At this time he was working and recording with the close circle of friends and musicians who were creating hard bop – Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Jackie McLean, Max Roach, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Art Farmer, Doug Watkins, Sonny Clark, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Smith, Louis Hayes, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell.
This run of albums, almost exclusively for Blue Note, culminated with the album "Peckin' Time" in February 1958. Shortly after, he was arrested for drugs possession and spent a year in prison presenting the label with an artist difficult to promote.
"Soul Station" in 1960 was Hank Mobley's return to the Blue Note fold after getting back into the business in 1959 via Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers band. Further working his way back with the excellent albums "Roll Call" and "Workout", being asked by Miles Davis to replace John Coltrane in the Miles Davis band in 1961 and then recording his own "No Room for Squares" in 1963 led to new high points. But by 1964 drugs and associated legal problems led to that year being fallow once again. Much as Blue Note has been criticized for not releasing key recordings of Hank Mobley's during and after this period, in those morally more censorious times it is hardly surprising that marketing his work was difficult.
As John Litweiler wrote in his DownBeat article: "….. in the '50s …..drugs were a huge part of the bop and post-bop scene, a seemingly unavoidable fact of life, and in the latter part of the decade Hank was drawn into the heroin vortex. Once I played a particularly fine sextet record for him. His remark: Oh, that thing. Five of the six of us were out to lunch. That's why they got Herbie Hancock; they always wanted one man in the band who was cool."
Ariene Lissner, the drugs councellor whom Hank Mobley eventually married, is quoted as saying: "There's more knowledge about drugs now…..there was a feeling that if (Charlie) Parker could play like that, maybe there was something to being strung out". To which Mobley continued: "I had the knowledge. When I got strung out it was my own fault. A person getting strung out at age 18; that's a problem. He doesn't even have a chance to know what life is all about. By the time I got strung out I had learned my instrument, I was making money. Now, I don't have to worry about drugs – I've had enough of that whole thing. All of us are finished with it, it's a thing of the past now….."
But that was 1973 and at age just 43 he had made his last recording, retiring from performance because of lung problems. Despite a brief return to performing in early 1986 when he appeared with Duke Jordan, he died of pneumonia on May 30th 1986 undervalued and little known.
So, where do the positives start to appear? There is the largely unsung but seminal achievement of his early career when he was one of the handful of musicians who invented hard bop. There is the seldom remarked on quality of his work as a composer. There is the uniqueness of his saxophone playing, so often undervalued in comparison with John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. And there is the wealth of his musical legacy with over 100 albums, and almost thirty of them as leader.
"Soul Station" is widely regarded as being at the top of his list of achievements. Valuable though the musical relationships with trumpeters Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer or Donald Byrd had been (and would still prove to be), Hank Mobley is heard far too infrequently in quartet format where his tenor sax can come uncompromisingly into play. He had been to content to be a team player and too modest to make himself stand out in the way that John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins did.
"Soul Station" finds Hank Mobley almost uniquely at the head of a quartet where his tenor saxophone playing can step out of the shadow of the large group format. He is backed by Art Blakey on drums but not here in upfront hard bop mode. Blakey's approach is more subtle, more attuned to the unique needs of the music. Wynton Kelly, as on "Smokin' at the Half Note", is fluent and inspired on piano. Paul Chambers is an ideal complement on bass. In other words, Hank Mobley is at the head of a quartet that is finely tuned to these needs and in a way that lets his creativity shine through.
The opener, the Irving Berlin standard "Remember", initially promises something more ordinary than might be expected, but any sense of underachievement is quickly dispersed once Hank Mobley's first solo kicks in. There is strength and direction in his playing. He seems to have overcome that somewhat featureless saxophone timbre that drags down so many of his finest recorded performances. And when Wynton Kelly's solo follows full of characteristic verve and imagination, the level of expectation for this and the remainder of the album rises measurably.
At the heart of the album are four of those slinky blues-based hard bop compositions that were Hank Mobley's real strength.
"This I Dig Of You" is up-tempo hard bop played light and breezy, built around an opening piano solo of Wynton Kelly that introduces a fine, long and involving solo from Hank Mobley that is the real heart of the piece followed by a climactic and characteristically rock steady solo from Art Blakey.
"Dig Dis" is more low down, more overtly bluesy, again kicking off with Wynton Kelly on piano before the main theme is laid down by Hank Mobley's sax. There is a paired down simplicity that is key to its success. Again Hank Mobley solos expressively.
There has been much comment about how Hank Mobley can subtly stretch time as he plays, stretching the signature, interrogating simplistic notions of meter. For example, Miles Davis found difficulty keeping Hank Mobley in his band because he considered that he played behind the beat. This may explain why some people hear Hank Mobley and assume his playing is inferior to that of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or George Coleman. However, though it may not be to everyone's taste, this ability to stretch time is at the heart of Hank Mobley's originality and is well represented here and on most of the solos on the album.
"Split Feelin's" is again more uptempo, in the same vein as "This I Dig Of You", with great sax playing from Hank Mobley. Surprisingly, just as the track seems to be getting into its stride, it is faded out.
The title track, "Soul Station", returns to low-down and funky blues with Hank Mobley's sax playing close to the best of his career. The band open out into a relaxed space where time seems almost to stand suspended with fine piano and bass soloing before the return to the closing theme.
The album closes with a further standard, the Robin–Ranger composition "If I Should Lose You", very much in the same vein as the opening track.
There is an interesting balance with the four Mobley compositions sandwiched between the two standards.
Hank Mobley fell out of favour as jazz was temporarily eclipsed by other musics in the 70's and was unable to find his way back once jazz started to recover. If one album amongst the many excellent albums that he produced has to be selected, "Soul Station" is the strongest testament to the music of this great musician.
Star Rating *****
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Related reviews: Hank Mobley "Quintet" Hank Mobley-Lee Morgan "Peckin' Time" Hank Mobley "Missing Album"
Hank Mobley complete discography
John Litweiler interview:
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