Thanks to Simon Spillett, who authored this very fine article in the Jan 2004 JJI. Already posted in the 'Breakthrough' thread and now repeated in its own thread here. B-) .
Hank Mobley In Europe 1968-70
"The circumstances of Hank Mobley's arival in Britain in the Spring of 1968 were far from dignified. Writer John Fordham has recounted how the saxophonist had telephoned the London club owner and fellow musician Ronnie Scott, one of Mobley's most ardent admirers, from Heathrow Airport in the small hours; 'Mobley was sick, broke and physically worn out' Fordham wrote 'and had come to London to seek help from people that he believed appreciated him and his work'. Shortly afterwayrds, in an interview with Val Wilmer, Mobley was accurately described as 'the daddy of the hard bop tenor' in recognition of the ubiquity of his influence upon many modern jazz saxophonists who had emerged since the mid-1950s. Praise for Hank's skills was not only forthcoming from fellow saxophonists, indeed trumpeter Donald Byrd, a partner of Mobley's in the original Jazz Messengers co-op venture, and subsequently a frequent collaborator, spoke for many when he summed up Mobley's importance thus - ' He for me, is just as much a personality as Sonny Rollins. I mean he has so definitely established his own sound and style.'
So how had a musician once widely regarded as 'the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone', reached a point where his talent was so under-valued that he was willing to risk everything on a whimsical flee from his home country to Europe?
Mobley's experiences in the mid 1960s, as was so often the case in Hank's life, tell a story which is an evryman example of the circumstances in which jazz musicians have to live and work. They also reveal the beginnings of a tragedy, which is as sickening as any of those within the music that are better known. Late in his life, Mobley said " It's hard for me to think of what could be and what should have been. I lived with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk. I walked with them up and down the street. I did not know what it meant to when I listened to them cry - until it happened to me."
The irony of this remark is that Powell and Parker, to pick just two of jazz's prematurely departed geniuses, died as they had lived: celebrated but isolated. Mobley's demise is all the more saddening when one realises that he had lived most of his life undervalued and un-appreciated; all but forgotten.
Ronnie Scott was actually a fairly safe bet as a potential source of help for Mobley. As a tenorist, Mobley figured high on Scott's list of favourites, even as early as the mid-1950s, when few outside the Stateside jazz cognoscenti knew of his work. Scott described Mobley as 'a very warm melodic player with a good conception' and also praised his 'perfect taste'. Unsurprisingly, Mobley had a direct influence on Scott's playing, never more so than in the two and a half years in which he partnered fellow tenorist Tubby Hayes in the Jazz Couriers. Hayes was another Mobley-ite, having first heard him on drummer Max Roach's recording of an unlikely jazz vehicle, 'Glow Worm' (on Roach's 10" LP, Debut DLP13). The Couriers recorded Mobley's composition 'Reunion' barely eight months after it's debut on a Mobley-led Blue Note session and Hank's work, especially with the Jazz Messengers, of which he was a founder member, did for a while resemble an eagerly awaited missive from which Scott and Hayes drew their inspiration.
Scott's punter-like enthusiasm for the individual talents that appeared at his club rode roughshod over their occasionally difficult or eccentric temperaments, and although Mobley could in no way be called temperamental, if anything he was too reserved and undemonstrative, he had already given Scott and his partner Pete King, cause to worry.
In October 1965, Mobley was due to open at the 'old place', Ronnie Scott's first home in Soho's Gerrard Street, but had misteriously failed to show up when the two Londoners had driven to Heathrow to pick him up. King told the Melody Maker at the time that Mobley 'had ilness in his family and then apparently had passport problems.' ('Melody Maker', Oct 30 1965) to which Scott added 'Our difficulty is that we didn't book him ourselves, but through a Dutch agency. It's the first time in six years that somebody has let us down.'
The less than enobling circumstance which necessitated Mobley's call to Scott three years later seemed enough to obviate any potential bad blood between the two men. In fact, Ronnie's response to Hank's plea for help was both practical and instananeous, as John Fordham recounted. Scott 'pulled on his clothes over his pyjamas, drove to the airport to pick up (Mobley) and made sure that the club took care of his accomodation and needs until he got back on his feet.'
Scott and King were, of course, in a unique position of being able to cater for Mobley's biggest and most immediate need, indeed the paramount concern of all jazz musicians, that of finding work, and they gave Mobley a month-long residency at Ronnie Scott's Club starting on April 22nd 1968. Besides this, King was also able to secure work for the saxophonist on the Continent, together with a less glamorous dash North ( ) for a performance at Manchester's renowned 'Club 43' venue. (One mooted rumour about Mobley's grattitude for Scott's intervention in particular, is that he rewarded Ronnie with the gift of one of his Selmer saxophones).
Inevitably, Mobley encountered the local jazz talent, but particularly rewarding was his reunion with the drummer Philly Joe Jones, who too had arrived in London to little fanfare towards the end of 1967. Jones and Mobley went way back, even before both men's separate tenures with Miles Davis's band, and had appeared on each others' records, as well as those led by the likes of trumpeters Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan and pianist Elmo Hope, amongst others. Philly was sitting out the Musicians Union ban on his paid performance, a pre-requisite of an extended stay in those days of man-for-man deals and strict working permits, by teaching and authoring a drum tutor. (Most famously, he taught Keith Moon, of The Who, just one of the several well known rock drummers who became his students at this time, not to bother to do anything other than what he was already doing so long as he could make the same money). Despite this, he was sitting in with musicians as diverse as the cornetist Ruby Braff and local legend Tubby Hayes, with whom Phily did a truly memorable night at Ronnie's, anchoring Tubby's big band like no-one else could.
It was Tubby's then regular rhythmn section that accompanied Mobley on his stint at Scott's. Such was the ad-hoc nature of the gig, Mobley and pianist Mike Pyne, bassist Ron Mathewson and drummer Tony Levin, had not encountered one another before. Perhaps inevitably, the opening night's results were less than spectacular, as the Melody Maker's Bob Dawbarn noted in the paper's April 27 issue. 'If he didn't catch fire on opening night, there is no doubt that he will - and lovers of first class modern tenor playing should be there when he does.'
The Melody Maker's Val Wilmer interviewed Mobley at some length during his tenure at Ronnie's, and the resulting article, which appeared in the May 11 edition, under the already noted by line of 'The Daddy of the Hard Bop Tenor', was, incredibly, the first in depth interview with Hank that had been published in any music journal. Even the prestigious Down Beat magazine waited until the mid-1970s to cover Hank, then well into his years of bitter neglected abstraction.
Wilmer was especially interested in the evolution of Mobley's playing, which was readily discernible during his Scott's engagement. 'Mobley hesitates to compare what he is playing today with the music of yesteryear; "They (the tunes) are so different. I like to play anything that makes sense and that moves and is not restricted. You might say 'half-free', 'three-quarters free', something like that."
Indications of this growth towards a fresher and more daring mode of expression are peppered throughout the article. Mobley named altoist Jackie McLean and tenorist Archie Shepp as his two closest musical associates, both players who had moved beyond the realms of Hard Bop constriction. Of the younger generation of improvisers, Mobley commented: 'They have their direction to play, I have mine. I don't think theirs is complete and mine certainly isn't,' adding that if a musician took the rules of music and 'change them all around and try to reach the people also, that's like freedom with a little restriction.' Illustrating this further he cited both his former boss Miles Davis and his friend the late John Coltrane as successful examples of this outward bound sensibility: 'Trane had roots from bottom to top, he always had something to stem from.'
Mobley ended the interview with a debatable declaration, the protestation that 'I am, as you say, always a leader.' In fact he was the quintessential sideman, principally in the bands of Max Roach, Miles Davis, Horace Silver and Art Blakey (there were also other shorter and less celebrated stays with Duke Ellington, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk) as well as his being an ever present voice on recordings by virtually all the leading black Musicians in New York. But even as one of the finest Hard Bop musicians, and as one who almost subversively defined the style for legions of other tenorists, Mobley was nevertheless never destined to be a major star, much less 'a leader'. He was to suffer, as a consequence of his reputation as a 'musicians' musician', critical neglect and a lower profile than he deserved. His tone, which he had famously described as 'not a small sound, or a big sound, but a round sound,' and his penchant for labyrinthine lyrical improvisations were calling cards that, by the middle 1960s, he felt were necessary to change.
His undervalued status was made doubly galling by the fact that his artistic peak, around 1960-63, came in sync with those of some of the more declamatory tenor stylists. John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins's music during this period had a more overtly musical demeanor, and they seemed to demand you listen. Mobley's playing was more sidelong and seductive. It took time to get his message, and in the early 1960s, time in the jazz world was hurtling by, the music beginning to resort to some very hard and fast tactics to attract attention. Only the patient kept track of Mobley.
However, Hank himself was also keeping pace with current jazz developments and the influence of Coltrane, Rollins's and Davis's experiments during these years affected his outlook considerably. In simplistic times, Hard Bop had evolved to incorporate modal music, largely through Miles' and Coltrane's work at the close of the 1950s, and the two, taken together with the increasingly less peripheral influence of the Avante-Gargde caused the nature of the music to become spikier and harder. Mobley directly attributed the influence of Davis, with whom he had worked from 1960 to 1962, and Coltrane with the beginnings of the overall simplification of his playing: his response was a tougher one (albeit one that was still a great deal gentler than either Rollins's or Trane's) and an extremely apparent refinement of his rhythmic skills. He also began to concentrate upon composing, and his themes began to incorporate more experimental structures, both in terms of their length and in their harmonic and metric complexity.
The saxophonist's exclusive recording activities under his contract to Blue Note records made it possible for listeners to hear the changes taking place in Mobley's music as they unfolded. 1963's No Room For Squares (Blue Note BST 84149), with its hip modal and funk grooves, was the first real on-record indication of these alterations. The albums which Mobley recorded in the year, preceding his flight to Europe, reveal the full extent of his stylistic rejuvenation, as well as the dichotomy of pushing the music further whilst still trying to score a commercial bulls-eye. 1967's Third Season (Blue Note LT-1081) contains some of the saxophonist's most ambitious writing and performing on themes like the whole-tone based title track and was, perhaps as a result, destined to remain unissued until 1980. On this and the other albums recorded during this time, the base of Mobley's sidemen was broadening out from the largely Miles and Blakey-associated pool he'd long favoured. By 1968 he had recorded with McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill, John Hicks, Cedar Walton, Woody Shaw, James Spaulding and Herbie Hancock, all musicians who had moved beyond the Hard Bop convention. The final album which Mobley recorded before his European self-exile, Reach Out ! (Blue Note BST 84288) is a contradictory one, in that it has authentic hard blowing vehicles utilising modes and structural variation nestling somewhat uncomfortably with the tenorist's covers of recent pop hits, such as 'Goin' Out Of My Head' and the title cut. The title of one of Mobley's own themes on the album, 'Lookin' East', suggests that he himself was already decided on a sojourn elsewhere.
Besides the Ronnie Scott gig, Mobley jammed around the capital with the local talents and Philly Joe Jones, and was featured all too briefly at the Melody Maker's All-Star Jazz concert at the Royal Festival Hall on a bill which also included the altoist Phil Woods. Reviewer Bob Dawbarn found Mobley's contribution 'slightly disappointing' and remarked that 'like Lester Young in his later days, he throws out the bones of an idea and seems to become bored halfway through its development and moves onto another fragment. The result is a sort of edited version of the Mobley one knows on record and I find it a little disconcerting' (The Melody Maker, May 25, 1968).
Listening to 'Reach Out!' with Dawbarn's assessment in mind it is easy to see how the Mobley of old was giving way to a newer maturity in Hank's playing. It is even easier to discern on the few recordings that Mobley made whilst on the Continent in 1969. Taped in Paris in July of that year, 'The Flip' (Blue Note BST 84329) has Mobley with fellow ex-patriots trombonist Slide Hampton and Philly Joe Jones, together with the Jamaican trumpeter Dizzy Reece, fulfilling one of the leader's contracted dates. The resulting album is actually far better than its apparent 'lets throw some American jazz players in France together' rationale and it contains some of Mobley's best latter-day writing in 'Feelin' Folksy' and 'Snappin' Out', two indelibly catchy themes which should be more widely known. Mobley's playing too, in that 'edited' manner, is engaging throughout, as is that of his front-line partners, especially Reece. A notoriously patchy performer, the trumpeter is in fine form, returning the favour that Hank had given when he partnered Dizzy on his first US taped Blue Note album, 'Star Bright' in 1959 (Blue Note BST 84023).
The following month, Mobley participated in the marathon recording sessions that Archie Shepp was taping for the BYG label in Paris and which pulled together a highly unlikely (and probably highly volatile) cast of ex-pat Americans then resident in the French capital. Two items featuring Mobley in a two-tenor front-line with Shepp were recorded; a brief version of Sonny Rollins's 'Oleo' and a longer exploration of trombonist Grachan Moncur III's 'Sonny's Back' (dedicated one suspects to Rollins (it was SW). Both are indicative of Mobley's earlier statement that 'Me and Archie are good friends but play that way!'
The latter track (currently available on 'Yasmina - A Black Woman' on the Giants of Jazz imprint CD 55379) is the more revealing performance. Mobley, for all his good intentions, is actually taken apart by Shepp in an engrossing case of role reversal; whereas Hank sounds to all intents and purposes like he is starting off from where John Coltrane left off. Shepp plays his trump card by echoing Rollins in a beautifully integrated solo which effectively mixes Hard-Bop know-how with New-Thing radicalism. Throughout, Philly Joe Jones gives a noisy reminder that the US's loss was Europe's gain, and his rhythmn section partners, the bassist Malachi Favors (of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, then domiciled in France) and pianist Dave Burrell form the loosest of unions.
There was actualy to have been a third official release featuring Mobley recorded during this period in Europe. According to an interview with the British saxophonist Peter King which appeared in the Melody Maker on October 5, 1968, Mobley was to have appeared on the session taped at London's Trident Studio led by Philly Joe Jones and which featured local musicians such as King, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and Mike Pyne. Recorded by producer Alan Bates, the set eventually surfaced on his Black Lion label as 'Trailways Express' (Black Lion Select 2460 142) in 1971, a delay that suggests that the legal nicities of contracts and the like were a stumbling block in its issue. At any rate, the West Indian saxophonist and flautist Harold McNair subbed for Mobley, who, one can imagine, having failed to secure a release from Blue Note to make the date. (This session can now be heard on CD as 'Mo' Joe', Black Lion BCC 760 154).
Jones and Mobley made an effective double-act all over Europe as the decade drew to a close, working such venues as Paris's 'Le Chat Qui Peche', but Mobley had also hooked up with the large community of American jazz musicians living and working in Denmark, including his early stylistic mentor Dexter Gordon (who had dubbed Mobley 'Hankenstein'). Gordon was undoubtedly the most prominent of a wave of US players who had found a spiritual home (and a willing audience) at Copenhagen's soon-to-be-legandary Monmartre Club, an apparently natural home for warm sounding tenor saxophonists which had hosted lengthy residencies by Ben Webster, Brew Moore and Don Byas, besides Gordon. Part of the reason for the venue's success, and for the comfort of its playing guests, was the resident rhythmn section, which featured emigre's pianist Kenny Drew and drumer Albert 'Tootie' Heath, together with the phenomenally talented Danish bassist Niels Henning Orsted Pederson, then still a teenager, and a musician whose tender years had proven to be the only impasse preventing him joining Count Basie's band. Mobley and Drew were no strangers as the saxophonist had performed on two of the pianist's albums. Indeed, Drew was something of an ideal accompanist for Mobley, sharing as he did some of the tenorist's lyricism. Together with Tootie Heath and Pederson, he is present on a bootleg tape that has circulated among collectors of Mobley at the Monmartre, alegedly taped sometime in April 1968.
Of Mobley's European recordings these are by far the most revealing, not least as rare examples of Hank really stretching out. As on his engagement in London, he opted for playing mostly his own themes, each of which receives a lengthy exploration, sometimes three times as long as their audio originals. There is a revisit to 'Workout', initially heard on the eponymously titled album from 1961 (Blue Note BST 84080) and which was all but a feature number for Philly Joe Jones. The Monmartre version finds the less well regarded Heath in the prescribed role and carrying it off with aplomb. 'Third Time Around', with its unique stop-start melody, was first recorded in February 1965 (a version that went unreleased until 1986) but was ultimately included on Mobley's 1966 LP 'A Caddy For Daddy' (Blue Note BST 84230). There is also an attractive look at a then recent Mobley theme 'Up, Over and Out' from the 'Reach Out!' album.
The tapes, it has to be admitted, are fairly low-fi, but Mobley's committed playing shines through nevertheless, as do his intermittent verbal reproofs to his accompanists on 'Third Time Around', who seem tethered by the alternating rhythmns rather than inspired by them. Also heard are Mobley's covers of Kenny Dorham's 'Blue Bossa', Sonny Rollins 'Airegin', Monk's 'Rhythmn-a-Ning' and 'Blue Monk' and, as the solitary ballad, a gorgeous return to the standard 'Alone Together', which Mobley had described as one of his favourite themes when he recorded it on the Jazz Messengers Cafe Bohemia session in November 1955 (Blue Note BLP 1507). As the Monmartre had its own recording facilities (albums by Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon and Don Byas are just some of those taped at the club during this period) one can imagine that somewhere better quality source tapes of these Mobley sets exist and that one day they will be remastered and issued. They are certainly worthy of issue, containing as they do prime examples of the new directions that Hank pursued late in his career.
Hank Mobley remained in Europe until early 1970, working in France, West Germany and Scandinavia, as well as in countries less likely to be encountered as jazz stop-overs like Poland and Yugoslavia. His final Blue Noterecording, made back in the USA in July of that year with a group featuring Woody Shaw and Cedar Walton, contains a three-part composition entitled 'Suite' which encapsulates musically Mobley's European experience. The third theme from this work, 'Home at Last', is one of Hank's most beguiling compositions, a bossa-ballad which, in part, reworks thematic and harmonic material which made up an earlier Mobley theme, 'Bossa For Baby' (recorded on Far Away Lands, Blue Note BST 84367), I believe ranks with his earlier work on the label. It displays a player totaly in command of a revised mode of expression and who should have gone on to much wider acclaim. The time was certainly right: Sonny Rollins was, once more, in self-imposed retirement from performing, and John Coltrane's death three years previously had robbed jazz of a single dominant saxophone voice. But fate again played Mobley a cruel hand when 'Thinking of Home' was destined to remain unheard until the late 1970s when it was initially released only in Japan, by which time any service it could have given Mobley would have been a case of too little too late (sidewinder note: also issued in the US in the LT 'rainbow' series).
Mobley's final recording came in February 1972 when the group he co-led with pianist and composer Cedar Walton - which worked under the rather pretentious umbrella title of Artistry In Music - made a single album for Don Schlitten's Cobblestone label, 'Breakthrough' (Cobblestone CST 9011 - now on CD as 32 Jazz 32148). Mobley is represented by two compositions, 'Early Morning Stroll' which debuted on 'The Flip' and the title cut, another ex-Blue Note tune recorded on 'Dippin'' (Blue Note BST 84209), and has an impassioned feature on 'Summertime', appended by an introduction that is actually Mobley's theme 'The Flight' from 'Thinking of Home'. Mobley plays with a commitment and brilliance that are suprising for a performer whose career was about to go into total eclipse. But, by the time the album was issued, Mobley was already into the decline which ended ultimately in his death.
The terrible events of Mobley's final years, from his respiratory problems to his dental problems, to his financial difficulties and his degrading period on the streets, have beem detailed elsewhere previously. One could ultimately talk of Mobley having paid the highest price for his involvement with the jazz life, or of his slow, painful erosion by the nefarious addictions that were often central to the music during his lifetime. At arms length, it is easy to coldly rationalize that Mobley brought about his own eventual decline and to cast him off with the countless other souls within jazz who self-destructed and burned themselves out after all too brief periods of brilliance. One can also view the flipside of this cynically tossed coin and ask, in Hank's own words, 'what should have been' if he had remained in Europe instead of returning to the country which brought about his destruction. Would he have eventually returned triumphant as did his friend Dexter Gordon in the late 1970s, emerging from an acoustic jazz limbo to claim his crown as a leader of a jazz renaisance? All this postulation, of course, serves no real purpose save that of diverting attention from Mobley's sickeningly premature death, at the age of 55, in 1986. At the time of writing, had he lived, hank would be 73 years younger, three years younger than Wayne Shorter (sidewinder note:-3 years older, I think it should be) and approximately the same age as Sonny Rollins, both of whom remain musically active.
Mobley's European episode began with his 'Lookin' East' and ended with his being 'Home At Last'. The jazz scene to which he returned was falling apart, divided into pieces by elements foreign to the lifeblood of the mainstream of the music, in much the same way as we now face an eclipse of the music by all manner of ephemeral performers. 'Sometimes I look on the worst side of things,' Mobley once said, and given his personal downfalls it is remarkable that he preferred music that, as one fellow saxophonist recently put it, so fully 'celebrated the joy of life.'
With that in mind, it strikes me that Mobley might be a perfect role model for anyone seeking to distill jazz to its essence. Surely that alone qualifies him, albeit posthumously, to the front rank of jazz players in his, or any other, era.