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Hank Mobley's 'Soul Station' At 60: How The Tenor Saxophonist's Mellow Masterpiece Inspires Jazz Musicians In 2020
Jazz is about more than just the innovators. As far as tenor saxophone goes, most in the know will rightly tell you to begin with Coleman "Hawk" Hawkins and Lester "Prez" Young. Separately or together, those two lit a match under John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and countless others — all who inspired legions in their own right. But with all genuflection to the trailblazers, those who simply play this music exceptionally well deserve reverence too. Need an example of this? Your next stop is tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s 1960 album Soul Station.
Mobley was an alumnus of the Prez school. That means he had a relaxed, melodic sound as opposed to Hawk’s, which was often extroverted and teeming with information. And Soul Station, which features pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Blakey, is Mobley’s most rewarding listen despite not breaking the mold. This unassuming program consists of Mobley originals (“This I Dig of You,” “Dig Dis,” “Split Feelin’s,” and the title track) bookended by two standards (Irving Berlin’s “Remember” and Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “If I Should Lose You”).
Because Mobley fully tilled the land he occupied rather than searching for new terrain, Soul Station, which turns 60 this month, is a post-bop building block and a terrific entry point for the jazz-curious. From a creator’s standpoint as much as a listener’s, the album has aged magnificently. These nine musicians of various ages and persuasions still regularly check out Soul Station — for its full-bodied sound, its hip melodic structures and the in-the-moment interplay between the quartet.
“It’s one of those records that’s just nice to hear,” saxophonist Chris Potter tells GRAMMY.com. "There’s nothing about it that doesn’t sound good. That’s one of the great things jazz can express — a relaxed feeling of camaraderie. That’s how the band sounds. No one’s trying to outshine anyone. No one’s trying to do anything except play music and swing. And it swings from the beginning to the end."
Like a perfectly crafted cappuccino, Mobley’s sound is creamy with just the right amount of bite. "That sound is pure heaven for someone like me," tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens tells GRAMMY.com. "I would put Hank’s tone up there with my favorites on tenor saxophone. That warm, fluffy sound is something I model my sound after. A lot of the cats from that era had a brighter sound. Not a lot of them had that velvety sound at that period."
One can understand that sound on both an emotional and a physical level. The Chilean-born tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana zeroes in on his time and phrasing: "The way he played is very personal,” she tells GRAMMY.com. "You can hear one note and know it’s Hank Mobley. That’s the most meaningful thing to me." Potter cites his gear as a factor: "Often, when you hear Mobley, there’s a few little chirps in the reed, which I don’t mind,” he says. “Every saxophonist’s reed tends to do that. They’re finicky. On this, there’s not. He just had a really good reed."
Soul Station has added luminousness from its production and the dimensions of the room in which the band recorded it. Mobley, Kelly, Chambers, and Blakey recorded it in one go on February 7, 1960, at Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, less than a year after Rudy Van Gelder moved his operation there from his parents’ house in Hackensack, New Jersey. His new studio, which is still operational today, featured cement floors, cinder-block walls, a cathedral ceiling, and a wooden steeple.
Plus, Van Gelder’s recording equipment and engineering style were exquisite. “The way he miked the piano fits how Wynton Kelly was playing,” Potter says. “It’s so clear, the way he plays. Especially when he’s kind of in the upper register — he kind of leaves a lot of space between the upper register and he’s comping a little lower. His playing is just so swinging, but also so accurate. He doesn’t sound sloppy. Ever. It’s one of his greatest performances.”
“Rudy was at the top of his game,” alto saxophonist Jim Snidero tells GRAMMY.com. "All of Rudy’s records sound great, but that one, in particular, captures the essence of his sound. The way it blends is incredible. It’s just one of those dates, man — where everybody comes together, and it’s magic from top to bottom."
Then, there’s the nuts and bolts of Mobley’s playing. "Hank introduced a concise, streamlined concept to hard bop," Snidero notes. "It was an extremely sophisticated [yet] linear approach that was nuanced, relaxed and swinging.”
As the seven-times-nominated tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman puts it to GRAMMY.com, "He’s a great resource for me in trying to learn this language and keep myself melodically honest. Every note counts; nothing is overstated; nothing is oversold. He always takes care of the changes. He never skirts around them; he always addresses them. He always outlines them in the melodies that he plays, and he always plays beautiful, compelling ideas."
Out of all the songs, “This I Dig of You” has been studied the most by jazz students. “That’s a solo all of us transcribed when we were at Berklee,” Aldana remembers of her collegiate years, calling the song a “masterclass” in sound and time feel.
“‘This I Dig of You’ is one of the most analyzed solos of the era for sure,” Snidero says. “Both Mobley and his bandmate in the Jazz Messengers, K.D. — [trumpeter] Kenny Dorham — came up with a different way of thinking about Charlie Parker’s language. Hank was more about the line and the harmony than the rhythm. He was very keen on creating hip lines. You can tell that in the way he deals with dominant chords and resolutions.”
Tenor saxophonist James Carter says this is due to Young’s influence. “His solos build along the lines of what Prez would do,” he explains to GRAMMY.com. “It starts with a simple statement, then Mobley builds the structure vertically from there, and it grows in intensity. It’s hip how calm he is through all of this. It doesn’t seem like he goes above high F or G regularly, whereas Rollins and Trane would. It’s a paradox that he could stay so even-keeled in his playing but stay building at the same time.”
Could any amount of transcribing capture that feeling? “The thing that’s great about it is maybe the thing you can’t put in a formula,” Potter says. “He’s just playing one melody after another.” As opposed to the unrestrained blowing sessions of the bebop era, Soul Station is highly listenable because of its subtle organization. Take, for example, the tag at the end of “Remember.” “There’s some thought put into the arrangements, but it’s not worked out overly,” Potter says. “It’s right in that sweet spot where it’s people playing music that they’re comfortable playing.”
Mobley’s old boss is a crucial player on Soul Station. Mobley was an original member of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which had a 35-year run with a rotating membership of dozens. So Mobley has numerous successors; one is tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, who was in the collective for its home stretch. “I’m a Jazz Messenger, and he was an original Jazz Messenger, so I’ve put him under the microscope,” Jackson tells GRAMMY.com. “We call [what we do] spelling the chords, and he spells so well. The way he presents his lines and his soloing style is impeccable.”
Many jazz fans associate Blakey with his hands-of-Zeus playing on tunes like “A Night in Tunisia”; Soul Station captures him at his most restrained. But to call this an aberration would be to misunderstand — or condescend to — Blakey’s art. “A lot of people speak of Art Blakey’s approach as primal and instinctive, but he was a highly intelligent musician,” Ralph Peterson, Jr., who joined the Jazz Messengers as their second drummer in 1983, tells GRAMMY.com. “He dealt on the highest levels of form, structure, and nuance, and it’s on fantastic display on [Soul Station]. It’s one of the records that drew me to his playing.”
“He’s such a custodian of the pocket,” Redman marvels about Blakey on Soul Station. “He takes care of that beat. He just keeps everything rock-solid and moving forward and grooving. Even when they’re just playing 4/4 swing, it feels like it’s on the verge of a shuffle. You feel that two-and-four a little more strongly, and there’s a little more of that rockin’, dancin’ implication to the rhythm.
Peterson contrasts Blakey’s Soul Station performance with what he lays down on tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin’s 1957 version of “The Way You Look Tonight.” “Art Blakey’s role there is a little more white-hot, a little more red-hot,” he explains. “But on [Soul Station], he’s in the blue part of the flame. The thing is: if you know anything about fire, the blue part of the flame might be the lowest part of the flame, but it’s also the hottest part of the flame. Art was a master of those kinds of subtleties."
That said, “Some of the fire came back during his solos,” Stephens says of Blakey. That’s true of his unforgettable drum break on “This I Dig of You,” in which he throws down bone-rattling rolls without disrupting the tune one iota. “He just explodes in his solo, and as soon as he’s done, they go right back into this restrained, beautiful, almost classical zone,” tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer tells GRAMMY.com. “I don’t use the term ‘classical’ in terms of genre, but of the overall aesthetic of the record. The way Mobley shapes his solos goes to the classic aesthetic of art more than the ecstatic.”
The combination of Blakey with Chambers and Kelly was unusual for the time. (One can also hear a rare Chambers-Blakey pairing on two tracks from Drums Around the Corner, which was recorded in 1958 and 1959 and shelved until 1999.) “Because it’s a hodgepodge group, I think there’s a fragmented cohesion,” Carter says. “He’s dealing with two of Miles [Davis]’s cats and, of course, his former employer, but it all comes together sweetly.” (In 1961, Mobley briefly became one of Miles’s cats, replacing John Coltrane in his quintet.)
All four of these musicians were pros, so they knew not to play over each other. As a result, Soul Station flows from beginning to end with no loose nails. “You can hear a conversation. There’s no ego,” Aldana says. “It’s not like ‘Who can solo [the fastest]?” Instead, it’s like, ‘How can we all tell a story together and communicate?'"
After Soul Station, Mobley released about half a dozen other stellar albums, like 1963’s No Room for Squares, 1966’s Dippin’, and the same year’s A Caddy for Daddy, all three of which feature the incendiary Lee Morgan on trumpet. “They’re great!” Snidero says of Mobley’s later works. “But they’re not as focused as Soul Station. Soul Station has a center and a power to it. It’s the apex of hard bop.”
Most of Mobley’s peers held him in the highest regard, but he didn’t ride the wave as jazz underwent seismic changes — including fusion — in the late 1960s. Suffering from respiratory and addiction issues, he largely faded from the music scene in the late 1960s and. In 1986, he died at only 55.
Today, one can scarcely read about Mobley without encountering “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” a boxing metaphor that jazz critic and producer Leonard Feather coined to describe Mobley’s place in the pantheon. To Feather, Mobley wasn’t a “heavyweight” like John Coltrane, nor a “lightweight” like Stan Getz — he was in-between. While Feather was arguably referring to the intensity of Mobley's sound rather than the extent of his abilities, Snidero says this isn't accurate — and, in 2020, mostly serves to trivialize him. (He evokes 1956’s “Tenor Conclave,” in which he eats Cohn’s, Sims’s, and a still-developing Coltrane’s lunch, as proof positive of this.)
“‘Middleweight champion’ is a cute tag, but it means he’s in a different class, that he’s somehow not a heavyweight saxophonist and artist,” Snidero says. “In my opinion, Hank’s depth and refinement on Soul Station, among other recordings, proves otherwise. Was he as great as Trane or Sonny? Maybe not, but he was certainly a heavyweight."
“I don’t think he felt the weight of innovation on his shoulders, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Lederer says. “Because jazz is folk music. It’s not science; it’s music that has come out of a culture. While there are artists that will want to innovate all the time, there’s also a special place for artists who speak and transmit the language and don’t feel the need to completely change up the fundamentals of the music that they love.”
“You might be hard-pressed to take any specific element of Soul Station and say ‘That’s innovative. That’s something different with harmony or rhythm or melody that had never been done before,’” Redman says. “But it sure is an influential record. That record has inspired generations of jazz musicians and taught them about a deep pocket, a deep groove, and beautiful melodic lines flowing with forward motion through the changes.”
Indeed, Soul Station’s accessibility and listenability is a feature, not a bug. “The music of Hank Mobley was important for me because I could access it,” Peterson says of his early days as a “frustrated trumpet player.” “It served as a stepping stone to get to other soloists on the way to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and beyond. You’ve got to start somewhere, but it’s not just a starting point. It’s valid in and of itself.”
Indeed, one can stay on Soul Station for life or hitch a ride to another platform. Either way, this hard bop classic endures for simple reasons: it’s all about playing the blues, weaving hip melodies, and, most important, swinging hard. Anyone with ears to hear can dig dis.