Hank Mobley: A Slice Of The Top (1966) Blue Note Connoisseur

Underappreciated voices of the tenor: Hank Mobley

MOBLEY-SLICEOFTHETOP_CV_1920_LJC

Selection: Cute ‘n’ Pretty (Mobley)

Artists

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.

Music

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.

Mobley A_Slice_of_the_Top_Jazz Classics

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.
MOBLEY-SLICEOFTHETOP_LBs-2000_LJC

MOBLEY-SLICEOFTHETOP_BK_1920_LJC

Collector’s Corner

Shrink! Mint!

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.

 

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17 thoughts on “Hank Mobley: A Slice Of The Top (1966) Blue Note Connoisseur

  1. I was up early this morning and so played a little jazz before I left for the office. This was one of the records I considered playing, and then I remembered that I don’t currently have a copy. I had a Toshiba reissue and didn’t keep it. Foolish, perhaps, as I had nothing to replace it with and still don’t. I think I still stand by my earlier remarks about Morgan being too hot on this record, but listening to the track above again — and it is marvellous — the other thing that strikes me anew is that another reason its release may have been delayed is because the ensemble parts are perhaps just a touch under-rehearsed… Higgins — oddly — seems to flail around a little over enthusiastically, for one thing, and Tyner hammers away, not quite having worked out quite what is required, it seems.

    I think this may have been the reason that Andrew Hill’s PASSING SHIPS from three years later.

    Perhaps Alfred thought that these records had been a bit over ambitious and weren’t quite up to standard?

    Anyway, I think I do need to replace that old Toshiba copy…

    • I’ve just had an upset with another Connoisseur: Lee Morgan’s Procrastinator. The United Artists BN-LA Jazz Classics two-fer (blue Label/white note) Lee Morgan has Procrastinator as one of its two albums. The twofer I picked up for the other album, but to my chagrin the two-fer Procrastinator is significantly superior to the Connoisseur Procrastinator, which cost twice as much.

      Though I have not had a very high opinion of LT series engineering due to variable quality, they are from the same stable as the two-fers. Anything is possible, I am ready for some more comparative listening.

      On the upside, I just picked up the Connoisseur of Tina Brooks True Blue. This one is a delight, and much better transfer than my Japanese edition of same title. Based on the price tag of an original True Blue, that isn’t in prospect. The crunch will be how the Connoisseur True Blue stands up against the Mosaic True Blue, how Wally fares against Mr McMaster

      Interesting times.

      • Interesting as i have a King pressing of True Blue which i always feel it doesn’t sound the way it should…

  2. Interesting to see that this was pressed by Specialty Records Corporation (the big S with the smaller R and C in the curves of the S), which was located in Olyphant, PA., a few towns away from where I live. Interesting because by the early 90’s I thought they had stopped pressing vinyl. Perhaps they kept a press just for limited jobs like this. I will definitely have to check out some titles from this series after reading how good they are.

  3. Always great to hear about a Hank Mobley LP that I was never quite sure what to make of, before buying. I’ll get one now…Thanks LJC!

  4. Funny – I just got the original ugly white framed copy yesterday, roughly a “NM-“. Sound is very good, no complaints. The music is excellent. I have a soft spot for “Thinking Of Home” as my favorite unreleased-released Mobley record, but this one is really a gem. Your improved cover wins, hands down.Really great session and cool to know he was willing work in different settings, and excel in all of them. Great sample cut. James Spaulding is especially fantastic on this record – and I find myself saying that about him on just about every side he’s on. “A Touch of the Blues” has a killer groove they lay into. Another winner. Hank, apparently, could do no wrong.

    • Yes, a little, Dott, but it also has something of JC’s AFRICA/BRASS sessions. But that aside, how often do you get to hear tuba and euphonium on a jazz record?

      But — and I know some will shoot me down in flames — I still find Lee Morgan too ‘hot’, too ‘bright’ a player. My loss, I’m sure.

      • “Bandits at 12 o’clock! Raattaatttaaatttaaa!!..(engines cough splutter).Bailing out!” Not so fast, English, now we machine gun the parachutes! Raattaatttaaatttaaa!!

        Bright Alun. yes,But too bright? Well…peppery hot, I would say. Having heard some live hard blowing trumpet recently, the dynamic range of the instrument is frightening, my sympathies are with the poor recording engineer.

        Whilst I have a dog in this fight, I would include Africa Brass and Favourite Things among my favourite titles, but second to Davis’s “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, which pits Mobley against Coltrane on the one album. (Wriggles with pleasure!)

        • SOME DAY MY PRINCE WILL COME is a marvellous record. It’s claimed, I think, that Coltrane walked into the session and, without rehearsal — and perhaps without even knowing what was on the recording log for the day — launched into it, blew…and left? I think Ian Carr tells the story in his biography of Miles.

          OH, but back on topic, just because the trumpet has a “frightening” dynamic range doesn’t mean you have to use all of it, as loud as you can blow 🙂

          I think my aircraft is in flames and my parachute in shreds. I can see the ground approaching very quickly indeed…

          • Was Someday My Prince Will Come an edited track with Coltrane’s solo grafted on at the end? After the piano solo the band starts to play the track out and then Coltrane solos. Seems like the type of thing Columbia would do at the time.

            • I don’t think so, Paul. If this was the case, it would have been mentioned in the booklet of “The Complete Columbia Miles and Trane” set. Moreover, Trane’s entrance after Miles’ short interlude seems quite natural to me, without any change in the general flow of the music.

    • I know what you mean about the “My Favorite Things” vibe, from both the Tyner left hand and bits of melody from Mobley’s solo. While listening I kept thinking about how this composition would sound with a somewhat pared down arrangement, maybe a quartet. Tyner would be all over the bass line.

  5. I my opinion, by 1966 the Mobley/Morgan format was becoming rather familiar. Quite often some of the tunes seemed to be recycled or thought up on the spot. This LP is different in both instrumentation and compositions and probably one of Mobley’s best before what appears to be, initially, a gradual decline. The ballad is as good as anything he had previously done ballad wise.
    Am I the only one thinking that Hank began to change his style somewhat around this time? Perhaps this was a result of health problems rather than out of choice. His playing seems to be somewhat sparse compared with his previous work.
    I remember the great critic Charles Fox, who ran the long running BBC radio 3 programme Jazz Today, reviewing Hank’s The Flip when it came out in 1969. He was saddened to have one of his favourite players turn in a sub standard effort.
    Sad to realise that Hank was still alive when this LP finally came out, by which time it would have been too late to benefit him.

    • My own take on Hank’s “evolution” draws on his contribution to Cedar Walton’s “Breakthrough”, about 1972 as I recall, one of his last substantial recordings, a few years after The Flip (sorry, it’s the fact-checkers day off) I felt he had begun to play like Wayne Shorter, not his normal swinging confident self. I guessed his confidence in his own voice began to falter, and tried to turn to new directions, more bombastic-assertive, a path blazed by Shorter. By then, however, Hank had run out of steam, and there began his slow disintegration.

  6. Hank considered this one of his best dates and I see no reason to disagree! In the one DownBeat interview he did (in 1973!) he openly wondered why Blue Note hadn’t yet issued it. Thank God they did! It’s a corker…

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