Miles Davis, an exacting man, excised many of Hank Mobley’s solos from the recordings they made at San Francisco’s Black Hawk club in April 1961. My surmise is that Davis was disappointed Mobley wasn’t John Coltrane, a lazy, beside-the-point determination that has kept Mobley from his proper mantle. Even today the general belief seems to be that players like Coltrane and Sonny Rollins were the “heavy thinkers” of tenor sax in the early ’60s, while Mobley was a song-and-dance man; they brought the brains, he brought the hard bop.
Here is a boxed set that opens a door on reality: Mobley was a tenor genius dogged by left-handed compliments, and if you think there was any member of the tenor pantheon with whom he could not hang, you need a better official hagiography. Having decamped from Davis’ band, Mobley retooled his sound throughout 1962. Previously his attack had been of an aerated variety, vaporous tendrils of notes enveloping you like that pie smoke tempting hungry tramps from windowsills in early cartoons. From 1963 on, Mobley wielded a harder edge, a whip of rhythm that snapped and asserted, dispensing with the specter of blandishment.
Even Mobley disciples know little of his work post-1965, which is one reason why this box carries max value. In the autumn after the Summer of Love, Mobley blazed with one of his best units, featuring Jackie McLean on alto; Billy Higgins, his perfect partner in cerebral hoodoo, on drums; and a kind of fiery, postbop brother in Blue Mitchell on trumpet. They waxed 1968’s Hi Voltage, and note the sparking kick (in thick, jute-like analog) of “Flirty Gerty,” which sounds like a Larry Williams title and resounds as rhythm & blues from the far side of Saturn. Mobley was earthen, but he could get futuristic.
A Caddy for Daddy from 1965 ought to have been a kind of brand-maker, the Mobley set that made inroads to pop culture. Its prevailing groove is as danceable as any on Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, which is apt, given the trumpeter’s presence. Morgan is clearly stoked by how Mobley thinks, a constant theme of these disparate lineups. One listens to Mobley, but one also listens to other players listening to Mobley. Like Andrew Hill, who might seem more foil than ally, but their harmonic interplay throughout October 1963’s No Room for Squares date is akin to a stylistic dance-off between Stravinsky (avant-gardist) and Handel (tunemaster), highlighting intoxicating overlap. A summer 1969 session in Paris netted The Flip, with Dizzy Reece on trumpet playing as if he were Mobley, and Mobley in turn working his upper register with a trumpeter’s finesse.
Throughout this set, Mobley’s solos seem a source of life; after a given song ends, we retroactively consider its totality as an overarching solo by the leader that just happens to have parts played by different instruments. He can shift shapes, but you always know he’s Mobley. Melville was that way, and Dylan, and Miles too. At his apex, Mobley puts some more weight on that particular rarefied shelf.
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