Hank Mobley: Newark, 1953 - JazzWax

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April 17, 2012


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Great Hank!

Dave James

Mobley is my favorite tenor player. Love his tone and his approach, but what really separates him from the pack is his writing. Rarely do you listen to anything of his that isn't interesting in all sorts of different ways. Considering the number of songs he wrote, that's saying something.

Samuel Chell

Anything recorded by Hank Mobley is precious (unfortunately, I have yet to locate a video clip of him anywhere). No instrumentalist created more inventive, soulful and passionate melodies. Unlike a great player like Sonny Stitt, Hank was not a "formulaic" player: he simply heard the chord and responded to it with spontaneous yet indelible melodic constructions that seemed to carry both his whole personal history and the story of this African-American art form with every unforced note. Though lacking the incisive attack and blistering sound of Trane, Hank's playing is of another kind--not immediately arresting yet capable of producing epiphanies like James Baldwin's narrator-character experiences while listening to his brother in "Sonny's Blues." Listen to Hank following Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Coltrane with a magnificent cadenza on "How Deep Is the Ocean" on the 4 tenors' Prestige date (counterbalancing the "Someday My Prince Will Come" session on Columbia, when he was blindsided by Coltrane's sonic fury). Or listen to his gut-wrenching and "heroic" 4 choruses following Miles' 2 on "Bye Bye Blackbird" from "Friday Night at the Blackhawk." But even an underplayed solo like that he offers on Lee Morgan's "Ceora" is a masterpiece. After 1965, his decline--both self-inflicted and traceable to the demands of the marketplace--was sad to listen to and to watch (I was there). But his recorded legacy between 1955 and 1965 is prolific, prodigious and unprecedented in its singular beauty and capacity to evoke emotion (be sure to look for him on the Blakey sessions with Byrd, Morgan, or Dorham as a frontline partner). Each playing of a Hank Mobley solo is like a fresh, new experience. He's one musician who simply nevere wears out his welcome. "Romanticism" is taken seriously in all the arts--except jazz. But if Coltrane was the Bartok of jazz, Mobley was the music's Brahms. When being muscled by Miles to replace Coltrane, who was assembling his great quartet, Hank resisted, saying: "Coltrane was the Art Tatum of the tenor. I can't replace him." Hank was partially right: there was only one Coltrane. It would have been completely out of character for him to identify the other tenor player who was no less replaceable.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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