Thursday, April 21, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 180: Hank Mobley

Hank Mobley is mostly associated with Blue Note, but he did show up for a handful of Prestige sessions in 1956, starting with Elmo Hope in May, and continuing on into the summer, including two sessions as leader, this being the first.

He shows a healthy respect for the classics here, from pop and particularly from bebop, choosing tunes by Rodgers and Hart, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker--and two of his own compositions, which shows a healthy ego. Neither "Minor Disturbance" nor "Alternating Current" have become jazz standards, but Mobley did go on to become a composer of some note.

Monk composed "52nd Street Theme" in 1944, when 52nd Street was the nerve center of bebop, and Mobley was 14 years old. Powell composed "Bouncing With Bud" in 1946, the year that Mobley took up the tenor saxophone--late, for a guy who mastered it as fully as he did, and almost by accident. He had played the piano before that, as had his mother and grandmother before him, but when he was 16 he was housebound for several months with an illness, and an uncle gave him a saxophone to occupy his time.

He picked it up very quickly -- by 19 he was working with Paul Gayten's rhythm and blues band, and as yet another demonstration of how good those R&B bands of the late 40s and early 50s were, this one included  Cecil Payne, Clark Terry, Aaron Bell, Sam Woodyard and Walter Davis, Jr. And young Mobley stood out even in that all-star aggregation. Recalling those days, Gayten said, "Hank was beautiful, he played alto, tenor and baritone and did a lot of the writing. He took care of business and I could leave things up to him." The tenor sax solo on Gayten's recording "Each Time" may or may not be Mobley--opinions differ.

By 1951, when Bird wrote and recorded "Au Privave," Mobley was a full-fledged member of the elite jazz community--not bad for a late starter. He and Davis were backing jazz stars like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Lester Young as the house band in a Newark jazz club, and one of those visitors, Max Roach, hired the two of them and brought them to New York, where Mobley's gigs included bebop heaven -- Minton's, as part of a Horace Silver-led house band which also included Doug Watkins.

So with tunes by Monk, Bud, and Bird, Mobley embraces bebop in this session, though he was later to become known as the pre-eminent hard bop tenor player--a distinction which I don't particularly care to recognize, as I've made clear before. But that's OK, I don't particularly care to recognize a firm distinction between bebop and rhythm and blues, either.

It's great to hear these classic tunes brought into the framework of a straight-ahead Prestige jam session, particularly "Au Privave." It's always good to be reminded of what an amazing artist Bird was, as composer as well as soloist.

Mal Waldron may have had other plans, because Barry Harris is in as the piano player for this second
July 20th session. Harris would eventually settle in New York, but in 1956 he was on loan from Detroit's jazz hotbed, and among the places I'd go to if I could time travel, Detroit's Blue Bird Inn in the 40s and 50s would be high on the list. Harris is solid throughout, and contributes some hot solos.

Prestige released this session as Mobley's Message,and it's billed as the Hank Mobley Sextet, though it's only a sextet for "Au Privave," when Jackie McLean joins the group. And Donald Byrd drops out on "Little Girl Blue," making that a quartet number. It was later rereleased as Hank Mobley's Message, perhaps so no one would confuse the tenor player with Miss America Mary Ann Mobley.

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