Underappreciated voices of the tenor: Hank Mobley
Selection: Cute ‘n’ Pretty (Mobley)
Lee Morgan (trumpet) Kiane Zawadi (euphonium) Howard Johnson (tuba) James Spaulding (alto sax, flute) Hank Mobley (tenor sax, arranger) McCoy Tyner (piano) Bob Cranshaw (bass) Billy Higgins (drums) Duke Pearson (arranger) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, March 18, 1966
Artist side-note: Bernard McKinney
McKinney, later taking the name “Kiane Zawadi”, was one of the few jazz musicians to play the unwieldy euphonium. In a town bursting with piano and tenor players, this courageous choice of instrument left him well-placed as just about its only performer in town. His sessionography lists just about everyone, ranging from Sun Ra, Pepper Adams, Freddie Hubbard, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Joe Henderson, Charles Tolliver, Dollar Brand, McCoy Tyner and many more lead artists. The quirky euphonium was always in demand, but never destined to be leader.
After a string of titles for Blue Note in the late 50’s and early ’60s Hank Mobley took leave of absence from the recording studio to enjoy a brief spell in The Big House, in 1964, for possession. Taking advantage of the luxury of time on his hands, Mobley took to songwriting. The fruits of this writing was the album “A Slice Of The Top“, which he recorded in octet soon after his release, in 1966, with a little help from Duke Pearson with the arrangements.
The octet offers an unusual five brass voice mix: Mobley’s tenor offset by Spaulding’s alto and flute, throw in Lee Morgan’s peppery trumpet, while the addition of mid-range tuba and bottom register euphonium alters the character of the lower register to a jaunty romp quite unlike the more conventional bari/trombone brass complement. The result is a quite different sounding Blue Note. All the tracks have strong compositions, no mere blowing session, and a lot going on in the arrangements.
The selection Cute ‘n’ Pretty conjures up just what turns a young man’s head: no room for safe spaces and gender fluidity here. Mobley gives the head arrangement and composition lots of space, dressed with exquisite brass harmonies, building to the climax from which Mobley emerges flying out in the upper register, a howling banshee, irresistibly Hank. A great track, a nagging tune, derda, ditda-der derda, on a great record, which didn’t want to be parted from the turntable.
All of Mobley’s early records for Blue Note are rare and as a result can be very expensive. Price is driven by scarcity not quality. Slice Of The Top is very high quality artistic endeavour, and a record which is not at all rare, and as a result not at all expensive. It’s called a win-win situation.
Mobley continues to be my tenor of choice. At least me and my turntable agree about that, though Tina Brooks offers stiff competition- a little more wayward and unpredictable, but Hank’s maturity and vigour here is at its peak. Perhaps that year in The Big House had beneficial effects in terms of practice time (not that I would recommend a year in the slammer in order to perfect your charts). Never seems to have done Art Pepper’s playing any harm. Just a pity that in Hank’s case his personal trajectory was soon on the downturn, but there are riches enough here, and a few more years still to enjoy.
Vinyl: BI 33582
Released as LT 995 for United Artists Jazz Classics around 1980, this Blue Note Connoisseur edition (1995)
Recorded on the cusp of transition to Liberty, the tape lay neglected in the vaults for a decade and a half until discovered by Cuscuna for United Artists. I am convinced it was intended to be called “A Slice Off the Top” not “A Slice Of The Top”. A slice of the top of what?
The LT Jazz Classics edition is commonly found, one of several Mobley records in the LT series – Third Season, Thinking of Home. I found them somewhat lacklustre, and rarely played, probably my loss. The same fate befell a number of Lee Morgan titles in the LT series.
Reaquaintance through the Connoisseur edition rekindled my enthusiasm for this unusual sounding album, though I think this was a somewhat flawed recording from the outset, perhaps not one of Van Gelder’s best recordings. May be the tricky combination of bass and euphonium threw things in the reverb department, who knows, but the soaring Mobley’s tenor more than makes up for any technical shortcomings.
The Connoisseur cover wins hands down over the LT Jazz Classics large white frame cover. The Connoisseur has got more Hank on it, while the Jazz Classics has got more architectural night photography on it. Which is more relevant is for you to decide. My vote goes to Connoisseur.
The vinyl was mastered by Wally Trautgott for Capitol. Conventional wisdom says a dozen or so of the Connoisseur titles are digitally mastered, the others analogue, though I have never seen a list of which is which, so I’m not sure knowing this is particularly helpful. Since there was no “original” pressing and no RVG mastered source, all editions are reissues of a record that never existed.
Despite being twenty years old, this copy came still sealed. The seller commenting he had bought it in the mid-90’s but had never got around to playing it, as like everyone else he migrated to The Evil Silver Disc™.
I didn’t have the heart to remove the shrink, and I did take pleasure in opening it. After years of inspecting records with decades of wear, there is definitely is a little surge of excitement in being the first to play. Mint Plus.
Hopefully I will get over it, as this won’t happen often again.