This is the final part of a two-posting look at sax great Hank Mobley and the 50th anniversary of his greatest album, “Soul Station.” Click here to read Part 1.
Jazz critics and historians generally agree that “Soul Station” marks the creative peak of Hank Mobley’s career. It’s worth noting, however, that at the time of the album’s release 50 years ago it was also something of a comeback.
Mobley, it seems, had spent 1959 behind bars. That’s right – count the sax great among the legion of jazz artists who saw their careers (and, for many, their very lives) sidetracked by addiction.
Mobley was born July 7, 1930, in Eastman, Ga., and grew up just across the Hudson from New York City in Elizabeth, N.J. (of which I am a native). Raised in a musical family, Mobley initially played piano before switching to sax at 16. You can imagine the players who inspired him – Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, etc.
From the late ‘40s to mid-‘50s, the young player ascended the jazz hierarchy, going from playing in Newark house bands with the likes of Walter Davis Jr. to collaborating with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. By 1955, Mobley was working with Art Blakey and Horace Silver in the just-formed Jazz Messengers. AllMusic.com has this to say about his style:
His solo lines were full of intricate rhythmic patterns that were delivered with spot-on precision, and he was no slouch harmonically either. As a charter member of Horace Silver’s Jazz Messengers, Mobley helped inaugurate the hard bop movement – jazz that balanced sophistication and soulfulness, complexity and earthy swing, and whose loose structure allowed for extended improvisations.
The latter half of the ‘50s saw Mobley establish himself as a leader on such Prestige and Blue Note albums as “Mobley’s Message” (1956), “Curtain Call” (1957) and “Peckin’ Time” (1958). None necessarily set the world on fire, due at least in part to the modest Mobley’s low public profile; he reportedly gave only three interviews over the course of a three-decade career. That he had a drug problem didn’t help matters much. To be sure, Mobley’s addiction was wrapped up in the whole Bird myth that heroin would lead to visionary jazz, a concept Mobley later repudiated.
I had the knowledge. When I got strung out it was my own fault. A person getting strung out at age 18; that’s a problem. He doesn’t even have a chance to know what life is all about. By the time I got strung out I had learned my instrument, I was making money.
Mobley returned to action with “Soul Station” and there followed a decade of stellar releases – “Roll Call” (1960), “Workout” (1961), “No Room for Squares” (1963), “The Turnaround!” (1965), “Hi Voltage” (1967), “The Flip” 1969) – that I consider among the finest jazz ever recorded. Even in those productive years, however, Mobley was dogged by addiction and attendant health problems.
All of which took its toll. Due to a lung ailment, Mobley retired from performing in 1973; he was all of 43. When he died of pneumonia in 1986, the sax great was, as one web site puts it, “undervalued and little known.”
His stock has certainly risen over the past two decades, as well it should. If you haven’t heard “Soul Station,” its 50th anniversary is the ideal moment to open your ears to one of jazz’s truly remarkable players, the late and very much lamented Hank Mobley.
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