Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hard bop repertory — a suggestion

(For Ira Gitler.)

The central position of hard bop in what is widely considered as the mainstream of jazz is an interesting phenomenon. It is paradoxical how despite its pervading presence, the lingua franca, thanks to the enormous recorded legacy, and even today, among students at music schools, there is very little literature about it. Whatever the reason, there are few biographies of musicians relevant to that genre — some don't amount to much more than listening guides —, and there's no definitive treaty of the music either (Rosenthal and Mathieson's books are clearly not enough), which, given that it would have to deal with African-American heritage more so than any other branch of jazz, it should be seriously considered by one or several scholars.

Going back to the first point, given the numbers of musicians who play in or around the hard-bop genre, among them many music students fresh out of schools, at least some of them must really like the music (in spite of all the cynicism by old farts who've seen it all). So here's my suggestion to those looking for a less-trodden path in that realm: why not explore Hank Mobley's compositions?

Hank Mobley at the Soul Station recording session, Sunday, February 7, 1960
(photography by Francis Wolff)

In classic hard-bop the main references are Horace Silver, Benny Golson, the other contributors to the Jazz Messengers' library, even Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. But very little attention is paid to Mobley as a composer (or otherwise, to be frank); given his rhythmic and harmonic ingenuity as an improvisor, one would expect some interest in the way he put that on paper. In fact, his songbook, over 140 titles of it, holds a few surprises.

In about twenty years, Mobley wrote and recorded a lot (not all of it released as it was recorded, which he bitterly resented). His output describes an arch parallel to its context (although he doesn't go into "free" or excursions such as Coltrane's or Eric Dolphy's).

Against what it could be expected, there are not so many blues (about 1/6 of his pieces are blues of different sorts, from very straight-ahead 12-bar deals, to mid-1950s boppish, or rather parkerian tunes like the 1955 "Hank's Tune"). Sometimes he may sound derivative ("The Feelin's Good" is his take on Benny Golson's "Moanin'", "Chain Reaction" is an obvious tip of the hat to Coltrane's "Impressions", "Funk In Deep Freeze" is a salute to Max Roach-Clifford Brown, and "My Groove, Your Move" borrows heavily from Little Willie John's "Fever") and, as expected, there are a few instances of Mobley following the models of Blue Note hits "Watermelon Man" or "The Sidewinder", but that doesn't diminish the appeal of "A Caddy for Daddy", "Hi Voltage", "The Turnaround", "The Dip", or "Talk About Gittin' It". The latter, together with "Take Your Pick" and "The Third Season" are especially memorable.

There is some variety too: Tunes in 3/4 time, like "Cute and Pretty" and the blues "Hank's Waltz"; a few minor-key melodies, like "The Morning After" (also on 3/4); a few bossas; modal stuff; and cool-ish compositions, like "Hank's Other Tune". Regarding this, a slightly greater effort in naming the compositions would have probably foster their appeal: besides the two different "Hank's Tune" (one with Donald Byrd in 1955 for Transition, the other with Horace Silver in 1956 for Blue Note) such a pretty ballad like "Mobley's Musings" surely deserved a more song-like title. For those in need of some heavy ballads, do have a listening at "Fin de l'Affaire", "Madeline", "My Sin" (of which there is a very different reading), and "No More Goodbyes".

From a compositional point of view, the album A Slice of the Top deserves special attention: it carries five tunes, four by Mobley, with arrangements by Duke Pearson — under Mobley's guidance — for an octet (trumpet, euphonium, tuba, alto sax or flute, tenor sax, piano, bass, and drums). Recorded in 1966 with an all-star cast (Lee Morgan, Howard Johnson, and James Spaulding, plus McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, and Billy Higgins as the rhythm section) it wasn't released till 1979, when Mobley had all but retired due to poor health, one of a few delayed Blue Note releases.

All of Mobley's compositions (according to the BMI catalogue and are available in the Spotify playlist below, except the following: "Alternating Current" (YouTube). Also worth noting, Don Sickler has, in his website, lead sheets for 54 of Mobley's compositions. Sickler was also behind the First Hank Mobley Jazz Festival, a series of concerts devoted to this music in late 2003, featuring Frank Wess, Don Braden, Houston Person, and Joe Lovano, among others, at the Jazz Standard in New York City.

For those interested on data such as recording dates, personnel, etc., on this occasion and Wikipedia offer reliable information.

All the mentioned tunes, and the rest of Mobley's compositions, can be listened to on YouTube and Spotify.

Hope you enjoy this, and happy international jazz day!

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