Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recommended jazz recordings: a list of one

We are smack dab in the middle of Jazz Appreciation Month — pretty meaningless for some of us, but still a nice try at giving exposure to a sophisticated, exciting, and unlikely art form that cuts through class, racial and national considerations. In practical terms, this means events, photo-calls, blurbs, smiling faces... and lists of recordings. Of these we have many, past and present, and they tend to rely more on received wisdom and hype than on critical value — fine if you're OK with "this is great", but not so much if you need "this is great because...".

Besides, there's the wishfulness of recommending more than, say, five records to someone who's not really into jazz at all. With all the incredible stuff around us today, all kinds of music, books, films, TV... either physically or through the internet, an hour of undivided attention has become a luxury.

Because of that, and the fact that recommending anything above five records is an open door to political correctness (of all misconceptions about jazz, the one about its cultivated, unprejudiced listeners is the funniest) and, frankly, a way out for wimps, let's see if I can cut through all that background noise by telling you one (1) jazz album you should have.

It won't be anything by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane. Those are extraordinary musicians, genres unto themselves, which are not representative of jazz. Say what? No, they're not. Go for any of those by all means, but don't think for a second that the rest of "jazz" is at the same level as the best of their recorded works; bear in mind their excellence and avoid future disappointments. And although many wouldn't admit this, you wouldn't be alone if your first impressions are that Kind of Blue is too slow, or Giant Steps is too overpowering (and don't get me wrong, those are masterpieces).

So, if you still don't have it, regardless of your expertise in or knowledge of jazz, do yourself a favour and get yourself a copy of Hank Mobley's Soul Station.

Here's why:

First, you won't find much hype around this album. There are only paragraphs, not whole books devoted to this LP (there's only one biography on Mobley himself, as far as I know); mention it in jazz circles and you won't get an endless barrage of blah, blah, blah about it and, believe me, that's one huge advantage already.

Art Blakey and Hank Mobley at the Soul Station
recording session (photograph by Francis Wolff)
(Half) jokes aside, let's go into the music itself. The band is a tenor sax-piano-bass-drums quartet, a very common format you're bound to encounter in gigs. Interestingly, the best-known and oldest member of the group (41 at the time) is not the leader, but the drummer, Art Blakey, who by then had been leading his Jazz Messengers for about six years, and had Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter in his front line. He's an energetic, driving and enthusiastic drummer, and a master of dynamics: don't miss his drum-rolls, and if he doesn't have you tapping you feet or dancing (as in track #2 here), go see a doctor. Together with Blakey we have Wynton Kelly on piano and Paul Chambers on bass, 28 and 24 at the time. With drummer Jimmy Cobb they were Miles Davis's rhythm section of the moment, not long before they went on to become the Wynton Kelly trio (their live recordings with Wes Montgomery are worth a listen). Chambers is one of the greatest bassists in the history of jazz, period. And Kelly will softly bend anything into the blues and make it sound natural. For the rapport between these two, go to track #1, bar 7 of Kelly's solo (3m14s), where they show off their synchronicity by playing exactly the same notes at the same time.

Paul Chambers (left) and Hank Mobley with Wynton Kelly (right)
Photographs by Francis Wolff not from the Soul Station session

As for Mobley, he will never be among the top tenor sax players getting name-checks in conversations, lectures or books, and that's OK. On the plus side, this gets a lot of hype out of the way (presumably after the compulsory mention of Leonard Feather's moniker for him, which I refuse to repeat because it's unfair on Mobley and on you). As far as we're concerned, he has a great light sound, melodic imagination, a harmonic prowess he doesn't show off, and the rare ability to tell a story (to wit, his solo on track #1 here). Sadly, he didn't have an easy life, but still managed to produce beautiful music like this here.

Before going into the specifics of the music, this 37m31s album originally out on 12-inch LP format (which is available again) was recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in his studio for the Blue Note label (jazz cred doesn't get much higher than that) in one day, Sunday, February 7, 1960 with no overdubs: a live performance taped in a studio with a few touches on the sound, this is as real it gets. The cover photo is by Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff, taken on the day, and the producer was Alfred Lion.

Hank Mobley and Alfred Lion at the Soul Station session
Photograph by Francis Wolff
The repertory has a perfect balance of two unusual standards, two standard-like originals, and two blues. In reverse order, and besides what is self-evident:

6. "If I Should Lose You". A 16-bar song at the time associated with the late Charlie Parker (with strings), Mobley takes it at a livelier tempo than him. The original melody is played around with by bass and drums (with the bass playing the kind of accents on beats "1" and "3" you can find in 1950s Sinatra records). To note, the quotes Mobley introduces at the beginning of his first two choruses, both related to Parker, of the "Habanera" of Carmen (1:05) and the intro to Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop" (1:26), respectively.

5. "Soul Station". This is a 16-bar form in the same vein as slightly older tunes like Cannonball Adderley's "Sermonette" and "Things Are Getting Better", with a "churchy" feeling, possibly coming from Ray Charles's records of the time. Blakey and Chambers lay down a heavy beat which is a perfect contrast for Mobley's conversational, never screaming, tenor. Note how Blakey pushes the rhythm ever so slightly during Kelly's solo, and he how drives the music by doing very little besides marking four beats to the bar. The final bars are a good instance of Blakey as drummer-leader.

4. "Split Feelin's", with its shades of Ari Barroso's "Baía", is a 32-bar AABA form, with the A parts very similar to Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm", but with a different B. In lay terms, Mobley has taken the most common warhorse for jazz jamming, what's known as "rhythm changes", and has made it more interesting with a few tweaks here and there. Mobley does his most intense playing here, with his own take on Coltrane's "sheets of sound" (notes so rapid that they seem to stack on each other, from 2:04 onwards). It is worth devoting a second listen exclusively to the rhythm section — both Chambers and Blakey seem unable to refrain themselves on this one, and the tempo rushes slightly during Kelly's solo. After that, Mobley and Blakey "trade fours", they solo for four bars each, a very common feature in jazz.

Hank Mobley at the Soul Station session
Photo by Francis Wolff
3. "Dig Dis" is a blues that shows two other typical features: the first consists in using and older blues line, Mary Lou Williams's "Little Joe from Chicago" in this case, and slightly touching it up (turning it to a minor key, here). The other device is a "stop-time" chorus (1m19s): Mobley uses it to change from the minor key of the theme to the more typical dominant, which stays for the solos. What you'll notice is that at the stop-time chorus the atmosphere changes and is somehow lifted (Mobley even manages to sneak in the odd major third).

2. "This I Dig of You". There's a lot of digging in this album, and rightly so. The listener will notice the similarity, rhythm-wise, between #2 and #4 here, the tension-and-release game between the rhumba-like rhythm of the first part of the tune and the 4/4 swing of the second half, something that might stem from Sonny Clark's take on Kurt Weill's "Speak Low", or even the countless blues tunes that use this trick (like BB King's "Woke Up This Morning" or Ray Charles's "Mary Ann"). Mobley is especially inspired on this one, with a solo beautifully crafted and played, but it is Blakey who commands the performance doing what he does best, throwing stuff at the soloist so they have a great platform to dance on (not unlike the extra "tickety-boom" Jo Jones used to give to Lester Young), and playing a thunderous solo, his only one in this record. Note too Wynton Kelly's opening solo, a lesson on how to keep it cool and pretty even at brisk tempos, a sort of "I'll run if I have to, but I won't be out of breath".

1. "Remember". This is a rather obscure ballad by Irving Berlin, which got impressionistic readings by Red Norvo (arranged by Eddie Sauter) in the 1930s and Gil Evans in the 1950s, and was recorded by Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in comfortable medium tempos. First of all, Mobley "sings" the tune in a very rhythmic, staccato way, with a faster tempo than all his predecessors from the very beginning, where Paul Chambers and Blakey own the dynamics, doing the first half in a sort of old, loose fox-trot vein, only to shift into a tense swinging 4/4. Note how Chambers and Blakey alternate the time-keeping duties, with Chambers keeping the steady bit during the regular 4/4 swing passages while Blakey adds his special spicing to it. Note also the change in dynamics at the beginning of Kelly's solo, a prodigy of beauty with the right touches of the blues. The jewel of the crown here, though, is Mobley's solo, the kind of invention you might end up knowing by heart, just like a song, only written on the spot. The way he uses the original tune as a springboard to take off is impressive enough by itself, for its inventiveness and his ability to get within the harmonies and highlight them in different ways. The fact that this is actually moving is the small miracle here. Admittedly that is a subjective matter, but there are a few of us that think the same about this one.

In conclusion, this is the record I'd give to anyone asking me for one jazz album. At best, they'll love it and will have a good sample of improvisation, swing, blues, rhythmic excitement, harmonic ingenuity that are commonly associated with jazz. At worst, it's a very good album, and in its most common edition on CD (Blue Note Records RVG Edition 7243 4 95343 2 2, EMI, now distributed by Universal), is sold regularly for as little as £3 or €5 in brick-and-mortar shops.

PS You may have noticed that there are no slow, lush ballads for romancing, dining or relaxing on Soul Station. Pet peeve of mine, I don't like the idea of jazz as background music. My gig, after all.

  • Soul Station on YouTube
  • On Spotify
  • Article on and transcription of Mobley's solo on "Remember" by pianist George Colligan, here.
  • Video of that solo played on piano, here.
  • Transcription of Wynton Kelly's solo on "Remember", here.
  • Transcription of Art Blakey's solo on "This I Dig of You" by Charlie Heim, here (PDF).

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