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Workout—The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell

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Johnny Griffin

These revealing literary outings from British publisher North-way cover the musical and physical lives of tenor sax greats Hank Mobley and Johnny Griffin in detail and with somewhat mixed results, although both are worthy efforts.

The better of the two offers a thorough view of the recorded work of the ill-fated and sorely neglected Mobley, a misunderstood stylist who, as Ansell points out, probably failed to gain jazz fame through a combination of his own quiet, loner persona, his lack of self-promotion and the fact that he sought to be markedly different from other tenorists of the time, in particular Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, the torchbearers of the ’50s/’60s era. As Ansell notes, Mobley’s unorthodox “round sound,” a combination of Charlie Parker and Lester Young elements, seems to have kept him out of the limelight.

Although Ansell belabors points regarding Mobley’s shyness and dwells on many small details to emphasize his reasoning regarding Mobley’s lack of recognition outside the “musicians’ musician” circle, his full analysis of the tenorist’s recordings, virtually all Blue Note classics, is finely articulated and makes this a recommended read. Ansell offers the view expressed by many that the tenorist’s primary musical gifts were his soft sound and his different rhythmic approach. The author also details Mobley’s non-musical life in what detail is available, as well as his tragic death, impoverished and ignored, at age 55 in mid-1986.

Griffin, who died at age 80 last July in Europe, where he had been an expatriate for 42 years, is given a good but minutiae-filled exposition by Hennessey. A minor problem is that the author adds too many general details on Chicago history at the expense of Griffin’s music. Like Ansell, he does a good job of thoroughly covering Griffin’s recording and playing activities in both the U.S. and Europe, but offers too much detail on the backgrounds of musicians the tenorist worked with or was inspired by.

Because Griffin had a more charming, outgoing personality and found greater musical success than Mobley, this is a somewhat more entertaining effort, but Hennessey goes on too long with the Little Giant and “fastest gun in the West” references. It’s halfway through the book before he gets to many personal quotes from Griffin, as well as his seemingly warm persona. There’s an abundance of detail on his sideman work with various jazz greats. And the author does a good job overall of summing up Griffin’s attitude about just playing music and having a good time.

Authors Ansell and Hennessey are both British jazz journalists.