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Hank Mobley at the Crossroads
Back in the early days of the internet when chat rooms ruled, Blue Note Records’ website had a bulletin board (here’s a snapshot of it from early in 2000) in which I often took part. One of the posters that I remember vividly was a certain fellow who was likely the world’s most passionate Hank Mobley devotee.
It stood out for me. When talk centres around the great jazz tenor saxophonists, it doesn’t take too long to hear names like Coltrane, Shorter, Rollins, Gordon, Hawkins, Getz, Webster, Prez and Henderson but you likely need to strain your ears to hear Mobley mentioned. In a way, it’s understandable for someone whom Leonard Feather described as “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone.” It remains an accurate description for Mobley who was firmly in the mainstream of the hard bop movement of the Fifties and Sixties.
His tone was firm and direct yet also had a softness to it. He was a lyrical and soulful soloist no matter what he was playing—he was equally adept at playing over a set of harmonic changes or scales. He was also an integral part of the Blue Note sound, both as a leader and sideman, and had a knack for writing hip, memorable compositions (‘No Room for Squares’ and ‘My Groove, Your Move’ are but two examples) . A member of the original edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ foil in his Quintet in the early-Sixties, Mobley’s jazz footprint is large and substantial.
By 1968, Mobley was faced with the same dilemma facing most jazz and pop artists: how to remain relevant in a music scene that had undergone rapid change in the past few years jump-started by the arrival of the Beatles on American soil in February 1964.
One method that Blue Note pioneered was the embrace of so-called “boogaloo” tunes after the runaway success of Lee Morgan’s ‘The Sidewinder.’ Mobley got into the family “boogaloo” business himself with the opening track of his 1965 session ‘A Caddy for Daddy.’
Another way was to record jazz versions of the popular songs of the day—on Blue Note, Stanley Turrentine was probably the artist who most fully embraced this approach and often, quite successfully (exhibit A: Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk on By’).
It was this approach that Mobley took for his 1968 album ‘Reach Out!,’ recorded on January 19. It’s a fascinating document of the push-and-pull between the desire to keep up with the times, and retaining the approach and sound that best showcases one’s talent.
The band that Mobley assembled for ‘Reach Out!’ was formidable: stalwarts Billy Higgins and Bob Cranshaw on drums and bass, upstart George Benson on guitar, LaMont Johnson, who was in altoist’s Jackie McLean’s band, on piano and Woody Shaw on trumpet, emerging as the most important voice on his instrument since Freddie Hubbard.
The album divides between interpretations of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and ‘Goin’ Out of My Head’, and four straight-ahead pieces, three written by Mobley and the closer, ‘Beverly,’ penned by Johnson.
Of the two popular hits, ‘Goin’ Out of My Head,’ which Little Anthony and the Imperials scored big with in 1965, had already proved quite adaptable to interpretations by jazz artists and popular singers. Mobley chooses to approach it as a statement of dreamy yearning set to a bossa-nova beat. For his solo as well as Benson’s, the stops-and-starts that characterize the singing of the main refrain are kept. While it helps provide rhythmic variety as each chorus progresses, it also interrupts the flow of each solo. That being said, Benson engages in some truly lovely chording and Mobley’s tone vividly echoes the song’s longing.
The other hit covered, ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There),’ the second chart-topper by the Four Tops, illustrates the inherent dilemma of trying to adapt a pop song—even a great one like ‘Reach Out’—that simply doesn’t transfer well to jazz. In a way, it shows how trying to stay relevant in 1968 often didn’t pay off and in many ways, may not have been worth, or more accurately, worthy of the efforts of the musicians of the calibre that appear on Reach Out!. What becomes immediately apparent when listening to Mobley’s recording is that the structure of ‘Reach Out’ simply doesn’t provide much of an opportunity for the musicians to express themselves during their solos beyond paraphrasing the melody, though Shaw’s statement shows off his brassy, often insolent, approach to the trumpet quite nicely.
The mismatch between the musicians and the material becomes even more stark with the follow-up tune, ‘Up Over And Out.’
Featuring a typically hip line by Mobley over a suspended rhythm that resolves into straight time, this is music that fits everyone like a glove. It’s a brilliant showcase for Mobley and his tenor—by 1968, his tone had grown markedly darker and tart—as well as Shaw, Benson and Johnson. Mobley’s additional two compositions for the album, ‘Lookin’ East’ and ‘Good Pickin’s’ are almost as memorable.
LaMont Johnson’s ‘Beverly’ closes the album. It’s a moody, groovy and dark composition with a melody that lingers and inspires everyone to bring a sense of introspection to their solos—Shaw, in particular, is spectacular. He and Mobley riff behind Johnson’s spot to add an almost trance-life feel to the proceedings. It’s my favourite performance on the album.
‘Reach Out!’ is the sound of the music trying to figure out its next steps without coming to any definitive conclusion. It remains a fascinating snapshot of the transitions jazz was facing and trying to respond to in 1968.
The Late-Sixties sound of Warner Bros. Records: I recently read the volume in Bloomsbury Publishing’s 33 1/3 series on Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, a truly one-of-a-kind album released in 1968 on Warner Bros. Records.
I first heard about Song Cycle through its inclusion in a book that asserted it was among the worst records ever made. That made an impression on me, especially when I made the connection between Parks and his involvement in the Beach Boys’ SMiLE. I finally picked up Song Cycle in 2009. The first time I played it I was more than a little bewildered. I listened to it a few more times and suddenly found myself that summer walking through midtown and downtown Toronto with songs like ‘Palm Desert’ and ‘The Attic’ echoing through my mind. Good music has a wonderful habit of doing that.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the 33 1/3rd on the album was the moments it touched on the personalities behind it and more broadly, the sound of Warner Bros. Records during the late-Sixties. People like producer Lenny Waronker, engineer Bruce Botnick, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, and bands like Harpers Bizarre and the Beau Brummels.
I have been harbouring a fascination with the Beau Brummels for quite a while. Their reputation largely rests on two hits they had in 1965: ‘Just a Little’ and ‘Laugh, Laugh’ produced by a pre-Family Stone Sly Stone for the indie label Autumn Records. When Autumn folded in 1966 and Warner Bros. bought their contract, the band slowly splintered apart until all that really remained were lead singer Sal Valentino and primary songwriter Ron Elliott.
Their 1967 album Triangle vividly captures the gifts of both musicians: Valentino possessing a slightly edgy voice with a distinctive tone that commands the listener’s attention—he is arguably one of the finest singers of his generation—Elliott’s songs (most co-written with Valentino) stick in the mind and are anything but formulaic—he is a gifted and sensitive melodist.
A single from earlier in 1967 is one of my favourite songs by them. Featuring a typically robust vocal by Valentino and writing by Elliott (co-written with frequent collaborator Robert Durand) that partly eschews traditional pop-song convention, ‘Two Days ‘Till Tomorrow’ is an unheralded classic. The arrangement by Nick DeCaro, another musician integral to the Warner Bros. sound of the late-Sixties, makes particularly inventive use of the accordion in the verse to complement Valentino’s singing.
Ripe for rediscovery, I remain hopeful that the Beau Brummels’ albums will be reissued in a box set someday.
A Fascinating Snippet of Leonard Bernstein Conducting John Cage: I recently stumbled upon an amazing recording from a New York Philharmonic concern from the afternoon of February 9, 1964.
The program for this concert was amazingly diverse: the Fall portion of Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ and Tchaikovsky’s profound ‘Pathetique’ Symphony and following an intermission, three works from the classical avant-garde. First was John Cage’s ‘Atlas Eclipticalis,’ which is included in the below audio clip. When listening, a few things are immediately apparent: the lukewarm reaction of the audience to what it is hearing and Bernstein’s introduction to the piece. Lenny astutely argues for the merits of what the orchestra is about to play while ever so slightly betraying his own ambivalence surrounding modern classical music. It is a joy to hear Bernstein guide us to what we are to hear.
When considering the date of this recording (February 9, 1964), I can’t help but wonder how many in the audience were home that evening with their TV sets tuned to The Ed Sullivan Show, whether by choice or forced to by their children, to watch the Beatles’ fabled first appearance on the show. Were they were more affronted by the Fab Four or by the futuristic visions of Cage’s piece? The answer is left to the imagination.
The Tragically Hip with Leslie Feist: This year’s Juno Awards closed with a deeply affecting appearance by the Tragically Hip with Leslie Feist at Toronto’s Massey Hall introduced by Gordon Lightfoot, the artist most synonymous with Massey (the prospect of Lightfoot returning to Massey this fall once it reopens is a tantalizing glimpse of the normalcy hopefully just around the corner). The occasion was the awarding to the band, including the late frontman Gord Downie, of the Juno’s 2021 Humanitarian Award by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush.
I must confess I am nowhere near as familiar with the work of the Tragically Hip as I should be—Feist considerably more—but this performance of ‘It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken’ is jaw-dropping. Here’s hoping we may hear more soon.