Given its rich traditions and the profound impact it’s had (and continues to have) on culture around the world, it’s not surprising that jazz takes pride in celebrating its storied past. We saw that in spades last year as the music industry and national media marked the 50th anniversary of jazz’s “miracle year” of 1959.
Of course, jazz fans everywhere have favorite performers/albums/concerts that they feel are as worthy of celebration as “Kind of Blue.” Some of them (read: me) have the venue to let others in on their passion.
So let’s talk Hank Mobley.
About 20 years ago, I saw a documentary on PBS titled “The Third Genius.” It chronicled the life and films of Harold Lloyd, a huge star of the silent era who, unfortunately, plied his trade at the time of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (hence the doc’s title). Much the same can be said of Mobley, a tenor sax great of the 1950s and ‘60s whose output remains overlooked and underappreciated when set against that of his titanic contemporaries John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. There’s a reason seminal jazz critic Leonard Feather famously dubbed Mobley the “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone.”
That said, Mobley was a key figure in the jazz of the era, a Jazz Messenger and Blue Note artist. He cut a particularly impressive swath through the early ‘60s, beginning with his “Soul Station” album, recorded 50 years ago next month at Rudy Van Geller’s New Jersey studio.
The disc is generally regarded as Mobley’s finest recorded effort and it’s easy to see why. The saxophonist smokes through six alternately smoking and quietly soulful tunes, including the wonderfully titled originals “This I Dig of You,” “Dig Dis,” “Split Feelin’s” and the title track. And the band simply cannot be beat – Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). To hear “Soul Station” once is to become immediately aware of the passion and emotion and energy the best jazz possesses and imparts to its listeners. Check out the title track below.
For all that, the album – and, dare one say, Mobley himself – didn’t exactly overwhelm the jazz public in 1960. As Bob Blumenthal writes in his liner notes to “Soul Station’s” 1999 CD reissue:
Mobley remained something of a second-echelon figure in the jazz world. At a time when Sonny Rollins had mysteriously withdrawn from the scene, John Coltrane had finally formed his own working band and Ornette Coleman was introducing his revolutionary concepts in the clubs of New York, Mobley’s kind of saxophone playing simply did not seem epochal enough. Good as it was, it would not change the world.
There is, of course, a larger lesson to be learned here. That is, at a time when any cultural form is experimenting and expanding – consider pop music in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – those artists who “merely” turn out exemplary traditional work are going to be overlooked and, in some cases, actively denigrated. That’s not fair, to put it mildly, and history eventually shakes out which works have staying power after the mercurial trends fade. That, certainly, is the case with “Soul Station.”
But what is the context for this great album in Mobley’s larger personal and professional history? We’ll consider that in Part 2.
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