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Six sides of Hank Mobley

By Ed Hazell

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  When you think of the great jazz tenor players, the ones with the big sounds -- John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins -- inevitably come to mind first. Hank Mobley (1930-1986) is rarely at the top of that list, and given his aesthetic, it's little wonder. As Mobley once told critic Leonard Feather, he aimed for "not a big sound, not a small sound, just a round sound."

The round sound of Hank Mobley is showcased beautifully in a new six-CD Mosaic box set, The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions. Only two of the sessions have been reissued on CD before; two of the others were previously available in Japan only. The nine sessions, recorded between 1955 and 1958, cover the period from just after Mobley's departure from the original Jazz Messengers to just before his peak years in the early '60s, when he made his recorded masterpieces.

Back in the mid '50s, Mobley was one of the new tenors on the scene, along with John Coltrane (who though just four years younger wasn't nearly as mature as Mobley was in 1955), and Rollins (also born in 1930), to whom Mobley was often and unfairly compared. True, in Mobley's most robust moments, his lines have a shape and momentum similar to Rollins's. But Mobley's subtle sense of time and the harmonic richness of his solos were all his own. He rarely raised his voice the way Rollins did, and his intellectual ambitions weren't as grandiose as Coltrane's. He was the voice of soulful reason. His best solos, with their effortless execution and thorough craftsmanship, struck a hipster's golden mean, a subtle balance of rhythmic and harmonic elements combined with close attention to overall form and continuity. Every note was delivered in that understated yet expressive tone, with its burnished curves. It's these very signature virtues that explain why Mobley's reputation has been overshadowed by the more aggressive and flamboyant styles of his contemporaries.

A charter member of the Jazz Messengers, Mobley cut his best early sessions in the company of the other founders: pianist Horace Silver, bassist Doug Watkins, drummer Art Blakey, and trumpeter Kenny Dorham. The Silver-Watkins-Blakey team form a tight unit behind Mobley on his first session as a leader, The Hank Mobley Quartet, and they play together for the last time on record on a rock-solid session with trumpeter Art Farmer, The Hank Mobley Quintet. But the highlight of the Mosaic set, and one of the highlights of Mobley's Blue Note recording career, is Hank Mobley and His All Stars, an inspired date with the Messengers rhythm section and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. "Ultramarine," one of several superior Mobley originals heard throughout the box, features one of his most beautifully paced and perfectly realized solos, a funky and poignant statement whose climaxes are couched not in technical fireworks but in crystalline lyricism. Dorham, whose own subtle lyricism and dark, sculpted tone made him an ideal partner, joins Mobley for one of the set's more consistently inventive sessions, Curtain Call, which was previously available only in Japan.

Mobley is backed by blue-chip rhythm sections throughout, including some great piano from Sonny Clark. But he didn't always fare as well with other horn players. Trumpeter Bill Hardman's distinctive take on Clifford Brown and saxophonist Shafi Hadi's abrupt phrasing and aggressiveness make Hank Mobley the best of several three-horn sessions. A complacent performance from trumpeter Donald Byrd and slightly chaotic alto work from John Jenkins detracts from the overall quality of Hank, but Mobley turns in a solid performance and manages another flawless ballad performance on "Time After Time." Farmer returns with baritonist Pepper Adams for Poppin', a rather routine session never issued in the US before. Byrd and trumpeter Lee Morgan join Mobley for Hank Mobley Sextet, the least interesting of the material here.

A more confident and mature Morgan is on hand, along with pianist Wynton Kelly, for the final '50s session, Peckin' Time. Kelly's driving rhythms, dancing lines, and generally upbeat melodicism are an obvious inspiration to the saxophonist on tracks like "Speak Low" and the title tune. Kelly would be aboard for Mobley's coming glories of the next decade, but if you have Soul Station (1960), Roll Call (1960), Workout (1961), or even the slightly later No Room for Squares (1963), don't let that stop you from getting this collection. There were some pretty impressive heights in the foothills leading up to the tallest peaks.

The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions is available by mail only. Write to Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Connecticut 06902, or call (203) 327-7111.

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