Delayed Reaction

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

I stole my copy of Soul Station. I’m not proud of this. It was lent to me by a friend of mine, an alto player, and never returned. Again, I’m not proud of this; but Soul Station has proved  to be one of my favorite records. I have it completely memorized, and even though I’ve had it uploaded to my computer for years, and I can’t bring myself to get rid of the CD.

Hank Mobley is an odd entry in the jazz pantheon. At his peak, he was a saxophonist as popular with the hard-bop audience as Coltrane or Miles. He made dozens of recordings, mainly for Blue Note. He did not languish in obscurity – he was not an ”uncrowned prince,” as Art Blakey once said of Kenny Dorham. But he was, perhaps, too heavily crowned for true success. Records flowed endlessly out of Mobley’s horn, so many on Blue Note alone that it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, by the late 1960s, Mobley was seen as all chaff, a relic of hard bop struggling (and failing) to adapt to the sounds of a new era. This idea persisted until the 1980s, and even beyond. I remember reading a piece by a jazz critic who derided Mobley for his performance next to Coltrane on ”Someday My Prince Will Come,” with Miles’s group. The critic said that Mobley was probably scared to be in the studio with Coltrane; that his sound was nervous and unpolished next to the ”greater” saxophonist.

Bullshit. We know this is bullshit now; we’ve moved into the era of Mobley-appreciation. Mobley was playing years before Coltrane, and had played with him four years earlier, on a Prestige group date, and again, with Johnny Griffin, for Blue Note. The two even hung out together at Nica de Koenigswater’s house in New Jersey.

With hindsight, we can separate the wheat from the chaff more easily. The liner notes to Mobley’s Roll Call, released the same year as that ”Someday My Prince Will Come,” are hopeful that Mobley will soon come into his own as a tenor star. He never did while he was alive. But now he has – thanks to one record.

Soul Station is a masterpiece. In my mind it edges out Roll Call, if only because in an era of quintets, it’s marvelous to be able to hear Mobley without another horn vying for attention. Another saxophonist might have floundered in all the extra space, but Mobley has crafted a watertight album. Impeccably programmed, the set list moves seamlessly from tune to tune, exploring just the right tempo at just the right time. Without a trumpet in the front line, Art Blakey plays with a hard but restrained style, while Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly have ample time to fill in Mobley’s blanks and take some of their best recorded solos.

Every great Mobley lick is here, and every one sounds fresh out of the box. His gracefully descending lines, bluesy bent notes, and effortless twists through the changes. These are all the things that were overlooked in the shadow of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, a shadow that has come to define Mobley and his career. It’s a question of apples and oranges, of course; Mobley was for his whole career, and after, defined through comparison to the tenor innovators. But Mobley was no innovator. Like his bandmates on Soul Station, he was an expert, committed to playing hard bop as well as it could ever be played. Put Soul Station on the stereo, and hear his success.

New Again

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Looking back on many of the greatest jazz recordings, it can be hard to separate the sound of a particular record from the associations we have with its creators. It’s not easy to listen to, say, Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet the way it would have been heard at the time, or even as the band expected it to be heard – because we know that Miles went on to have at least two more exemplary bands, John Coltrane pioneered the avant-garde and died in 1967, etc.

With the first jazz records I remember hearing, though, I have the opposite problem. Even though the sound of Thelonious Monk’s piano, Oscar Pettiford’s bass and Kenny Clarke’s drums on Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, for example, completely exemplify their unique styles, I can’t quite connect the sound of that record with any other by those musicians. The sounds are obviously the same, and yet I have a hard time contextualizing them.

That’s simply because I didn’t have any context when I first heard them. Soul Station is a good example, because there’s a lot of context to be found. When tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley walked into Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio to record the record that would become his best known, he was two years out of a long association with Horace Silver (Mobley was one of the original Jazz Messengers), one year away from a short stint replacing Coltrane in Miles Davis’s quintet, and sounded as good as he ever would.

With him in the studio was the piano/bass team he would join with Miles Davis – Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers. Both were Blue Note regulars, but Mobley’s chemistry with them on his own records and with Miles is underrated. Art Blakey, Mobley’s old boss, was on drums.

There’s the context, readily available and pretty neatly laid out and logical. But this record isn’t so logical as all that. Even though Alfred Lion and Mobley succeeded in laying out a completely typical hard bop date – complete with Bobby Timmons-esque tune titles like ”Dig Dis” and plenty of bluesy melodies – they failed in actually creating one. What was made was an exemplary hard bop date, and one that sits, like all classics, outside of its creators’ regular trajectories.

There’s no second horn on this date, a rarity in a quintet-obsessed era, and the extra space is used to awesome advantage by Mobley. The leisurely but inevitable progression of Mobley’s solo on the title tune wouldn’t be possible if Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan or Donald Byrd was waiting impatiently in the wings.

The absence of another horn also means that Soul Station isn’t an interrupted statement. These four musicians play so well together as a unit that it’s hard to imagine the chemistry surviving an addition to the group; in fact, we don’t have to imagine it, as 1961’s Roll Call is the same quartet plus Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. The music is good, but it’s no Soul Station.

Nothing really is, to me, anyway. Now that I have years of listening to jazz under my belt (and coming on four of writing about it), I can identify all the context to be found in Mobley’s work, and in the styles of his sidemen on Soul Station. I can even hear it, sometimes. But habits are hard to break, and my habits about listening to this record were formed when I knew nothing about jazz – about bebop, hard bop, Mobley, Blakey, Blue Note or anything. That’s what makes this, and most of the other records I’m discussing on this blog, hard to write about. It’s easy to hear the music, but hard for me to label it. And I like it that way.

If I Were A Gate, I’d Be Swinging

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

I don’t remember the first time I heard a jazz record, but I do remember the first time I paid attention.

It cursed me, in a way, ”If I Were A Bell.” I think the fact that the first jazz recording that really captivated me was made in 1956 might have contributed to my reluctance, for several years, to listen to anything made beyond 1965. But I don’t care about that.

It’s the best jazz recording ever made. I’ll get in trouble for that. I don’t care about that, either. I guess I should clarify that word, best. See, I don’t think it should be the only jazz recording. I don’t even think it’s the greatest, the most important, jazz recording ever made. You can fight that one out amongst yourselves; I’ll be over here in the corner, listening to ”If I Were A Bell.”

That’s the beauty of it. That’s why it never wears down. It has the essence of jazz in its eight minutes of sound. I don’t mean the Wynton Marsalis essence of jazz – vague words like ”swing” that raise more questions than they answer, and a lot of talk about Buddy Bolden and the way things used to be  – but the real essence of the music.

Lester Young liked to tell a story with his solos. That’s what jazz is, isn’t it? It’s what every creative art strives to be – a good story. Today, it’s fashionable to tell our audiences all about what we do. I’ve done it here on The Head In. ”Here’s who I am, why I’m here, what you’re getting.” Robert Glasper does it when he tells us about how jazz is on the wrong path, how we need to let go of this and grab on to that; Wynton did it at the Vanguard with ”Buddy Bolden”; whether you’re Vijay Iyer or Yoko Ono or Richard Ford or Chuck Close, you all do it, because that’s what’s done.

Not in the eight-minute world of ”If I Were A Bell.” Not in the eight-minute world where people play it and tell you what it is later. When I was younger, I thought that Miles never got around to telling us what it was. There’s no raspy epilogue – ”That was ‘If I Were A Bell,’ motherfucker.”

Oh, but there is. There are five voices telling us what song it is, motherfucker. For eight minutes.

I still hear this tune not only as a beautifully coherent, almost telepathic quintet performance, but also as five isolated voices. There’s Miles, muted but close to the mike, loud in the mix. The mute crystallizes every note, so no phrase is lost in the dead sound of the recording studio. He plays the melody, and then he plays a few dozen more, tells us his little story.

Then there’s Coltrane, of course; the early, lyrical Coltrane, before religion and liver problems and Alice and Archie Shepp. But even here, he dives right in, late to the mike, adding his chapter to the story. Under it all, Paul Chambers’s bass is providing a countermelody, the subplot. Close your eyes for a moment as you listen. Forget about Miles, Coltrane, the foreshadowing of Red Garland’s stabbing left hand, and forward lean of Philly Joe’s cymbal. Just listen to Paul Chambers, just for a moment.

”I’ll play it, and tell you what it is later.” That’s jazz, right there. Because it is music, after all. It isn’t books, or movies, or that link to the hip new blog. Is jazz dead? If you have to ask, you ain’t got it, because it’s right here, telling you what it is now.

I’ve listened to a lot of music since I first heard ”If I Were A Bell.” A lot of records have told me stories just as good, and as well, too. That’s where jazz is. It’s in the stories – not in artist’s statements, or Treme, or the Atlantic. It’s in the music. So come on over to my corner, ‘cause man, have I got a tune to play for you.