Hank Mobley isn’t as well known as Charlie Parker or as his hard bop contemporary John Coltrane as far as saxophonists go, but he’s an all-time great who deserves more recognition. In fact, you could say he helped birth “hard bop” as a genre, since he plays on the Horace Silver-Art Blakey led album, Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, which is often seen as the “first,” or one of the first, hard bop albums. It’s hard to nail that kind of designation down, since “hard bop” isn’t a new style so much as it is the continued development of bebop at a time when competing styles — cool jazz, modal (if you consider that a separate style), free jazz, fusion — were developing further from their bebop/swing roots.
Mobley had a long career as one of hard bop’s foremost figures, but he deserves more recognition than he gets today. Critic Leonard Feather called him “the middleweight champion of the tenor” because Feather put Mobley’s sound in the middle of the spectrum from light to heavy, but the label has stuck around as some reflection of Mobley’s supposed mediocrity. Of course he wasn’t mediocre by any stretch of the imagination. Part of the reason he gets a bad rap is because of his short stint with Miles Davis in 1961, after Coltrane left and Davis was struggling to replace him. Mobley, who was happy to stick to playing straightforward hard bop, was a bad fit with Davis, who was always looking for the next thing, and Davis later wrote that Mobley’s playing “bored” him. So that stung a little. But a bad fit with one particular bandleader doesn’t make you a bad musician, right?
Workout was recorded while Mobley was still with Davis, and alongside Mobley is a mashup of Davis’s 1950s-60s rhythm sections — Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums — plus Grant Green on guitar. Green is another guy who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but he’s fantastic, and I say this as somebody who isn’t a huge jazz guitar fan. On with the tunes then:
Here are three of the four Mobley originals from the album, plus one standard the group covered. First, the title track:
“Uh-Huh,” my favorite track on the album:
The standard, “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” which ought to be familiar to Mad Men fans: