Hank Mobley’s Soul Station is one of the definitive albums of the hard bop era, but compared to contemporaries Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, the tenor saxophonist is often overlooked.
The American jazz saxophonist Hank Mobley is often unfairly overlooked when discussing the history of the tenor saxophone in jazz.
He arrived in New York City, appearing as if from nowhere and with a fully formed and mature style uniquely his own.
He was not beholden to the school of tenor players that took their cue from Coleman Hawkins, nor did he play in the manner employed by his contemporaries Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane with a big luminous sound or with a lighter sound as favoured by Lester Young and later Stan Getz.
Mobley’s Unique Sound
Hank Mobley had developed his own sound that led him to be described by critic, Leonard Feather as the “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone”, a direct reference to Mobley’s personal and original sound on the instrument that was “not a big sound, not a small sound, but a round sound” as Hank himself described it.
The other important aspect that marked Mobley out as someone with something to say is his distinctive rhythmic sense. He would often start a phrase, develop it and leave the listener wondering how he was going to resolve the phrase and still land on the beat.
This delicious rhythmic tension, along with his sound and melodic sensibility would often turn his solos into a mini tour de force and a sense of waiting for him to trip himself over his own lines, which of course he never did.
This ingenious rhythmic sense and self-acknowledged debt to the influence of Charlie Parker would naturally lead to the saxophonist working with equally rhythmically astute and musical drummers on the scene, and it was not surprising that Mobley quickly attracted the attention of drummer Art Blakey, playing in the first edition of the Jazz Messengers.
The Messengers frequently recorded for Blue Note records and it was a natural progression for the imprint to record the saxophonist as leader of his own dates, and there would be a handful of solid sessions for the label from 1956.
Hank Mobley’s Soul Station: A Tenor Sax Tour De Force
If Mobley was yet to make a big impression on the critics and jazz fraternity, this would change a few short years later when in highly productive period the saxophonist would record three definitive jazz records.
The first of these, and widely regarded as his finest work is Soul Station, a now jazz classic produced by Alfred Lion and released on Blue Note Records in 1960.
Setting Hank up as the only horn placed him firmly in the spotlight, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Recorded at the legendary Van Gelder Studio with a superb rhythm section and everyone feeling inspired, the date proved to be a blinder. Pianist Wynton Kelly, and the young bassist Paul Chambers were both members of the Miles Davis Quintet and extremely familiar with each other’s playing.
With this strong bond and the addition of Mobley’s sometime boss Art Blakey on drums, the scene was set.
With a set list of three bluesy originals by the saxophonist and a couple of standards there was nothing to indicate that this would be anything other than a routine recording session, but once the tape started rolling a little bit of history was in the making.
Clearly inspired by both the material and the playing of his colleagues Mobley lays down solo after solo of inventive playing. On his own composition ‘This I Dig Of You’ which has become a jazz standard in its own right, he hits his stride.
After the catchy theme statement and a swinging and lyrical solo from Wynton Kelly driven along by Blakey’s assertive accompaniment, Mobley steps up to the microphone and delivers one of his finest recorded solos.
His gentle pliable tone to the fore as he spins out one interesting idea after another. Always unpredictable with each melodic idea running seamlessly into the next, with that edge of the seat rhythmic dexterity never far away.
This is followed by another fine outing on the funky ‘Dig Dis‘ with the tenor solo more laid back, yet still managing to convey a daring rhythmic game with the bar lines as his solo gradually builds in tension, only to ease back into the regular groove from the rhythm section.
The most satisfying of albums concludes unusually with a ballad. But as his wont, Mobley eschews the more orthodox slow pace for a lazy mid-tempo laying out his solo with a precision that is pure perfection.
Soul Station marks the pinnacle of a distinguished career of a musician who has been undervalued and under-appreciated for far too long, and it is testament to the quality of the playing by all that the recording has stood the test of time and sounds as good now as it did upon its release more than fifty years ago.
Looking for more albums? Head to our list of the best recordings by John Coltrane, which includes the timeless Giant Steps – released in the same month as Mobley’s Soul Station.
Nick Lea is a British jazz writer who has been publishing articles, interviews and news about jazz for more than 20 years. He is editor and writer for Jazzviews.net