Hank Mobley-Poppin’.

Label: Blue Note Records.

Musically, Hank Mobley was a late starter, and first  picked up a saxophone was when he was sixteen, and suffering from an illness that meant he had to stay at home for several months. By then, he was living in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was finding that the days were long and  he needed something to pass the time. That was why his grandmother decided to buy her grandson a saxophone. It passed the time as Hank Mobley recuperated, transformed his life. 

Eleven years after first picking up the saxophone, and Hank Mobley had worked with the great and good of jazz including everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach to Art Blakey, Doug Watkins, Horace Silver and Kenny Dorham. He was also member of the Jazz Messengers until they split-up in 1956. By then, Hank Mobley had already signed to jazz’s premier label, Blue Note Records.

Hank Mobley  had signed to Blue Note Records in 1955, and by the time he journeyed to Van Gelder Studio,  in Hackensack, New Jersey on the ‘20th’ of October 1957 he had already released seven albums for the label.  He had also recorded two other albums which were still be released and Poppin’ the album he was about to record, made it three. This was the way that producer Alfred Lion who cofounded Blue Note Records in 1939 liked to work.

He liked to have a stockpile of albums that he could release in the future. This included albums that were recorded and their release postponed or projects that were shelved. Sometimes, albums lay unreleased for over twenty years and it was only when they were reappraised that they were belatedly released. That was what happened to the album that Hank Mobley to record that October day in 1957.

By then, Hank Mobley was regarded by critics, his peers and Alfred Lion as one of the finest exponents of hard bop, which stylistically, was quite different from bebop. Hard bop had been heavily influenced by elements of blues and gospel, and wasn’t as cerebral as bebop. However, hard bop was seen as the future of jazz, especially when played by Hank Mobley.

He was a talented composer and had written three new compositions  for the Poppin’ sessions. This included Poppin’, Gettin’ Into Something and East Of Brooklyn. They were joined by Jimmy Van Heusen and Eddie DeLange’s Darn That Dream and Miles Davis’ Tune-Up. These five tracks were recorded by Hank Mobley’s sextet at the Van Gelder Studio.

The sextet included a rhythm section of drummer Philly Joe Jones, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Sonny Clark. They were joined by a front line of trumpeter Art Farmer, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone. Rudy Van Gelder was the recording engineer and taking charge of production was Alfred Lion. He always enjoyed working with Hank Mobley and admired the tenor saxophonist’s talent, versatility, inventiveness and ability to  swing.

Just like so many of the Blue Note sessions, Poppin’ was recorded in just one day. When Hank Mobley returned home he wondered when the album he had just recorded would  be released? He had recorded two other album Hank Mobley and Curtain Call which were still to be released. It was a case of wait and see.

Eight months later, in June 1958, and Hank Mobley was released by Blue Note Records. This left just Curtain Call and Poppin’ to be released.

Alfred Lion seemed to be in no rush to release either album,  but Hank Mobley was back in the Van Gelder studio recording  more music. He wasn’t alone.

Grant Green, Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine were other artists who Alfred Lion always enjoyed working with, and he recorded more music than he needed. This resulted in projects being postponed or shelved. 

This is what happened to Poppin’, which Hank Mobley recorded on October the ‘20th’ 1957. No explanation was ever given why the album was shelved and sadly, this stellar sextet recording lay unreleased in the Blue Note Records’ vaults for twenty-three years, and belatedly, was released in 1980.

By then, Hank Mobley had already retired from music a few years earlier. He was diagnosed with lung problems in the mid-seventies which  forced him to retire from music. It was a bitter blow for one of the greatest tenor saxophonists of his generation. Hank Mobley  great lost album Poppin’ was released in 1980, and was a reminder of a truly talented bandleader, composer and tenor saxophonist.

When Poppin’ was eventually released in 1980, it was to widespread critical acclaim. Puzzled critics and cultural commentators wondered why an album as good as Poppin’ had lain unreleased for so long? 

Opening Poppin’  is the title-track, which is the first of three Hank Mobley compositions on the album. The horns unite and play the main theme as the rhythm section create a vivacious, swinging groove.  Soon, the solos arrive and the band enjoy the opportunity to shine. Especially pianist Sonny Clark who is first up. His right hand dances up and down the keyboard before Art Pepper’s baritone saxophone takes centrestage and then trumpeter Art Farmer enters and his playing is effortless, fluid and  bright. When bandleader Hank Mobley plays it doesn’t take long to realise why he was regarded as one of the great tenor saxophonists. Speed, power and control his playing is flawless and so is drummer Philly Joe Jones’ solo. Then the horns are reunited as they revisit the opening theme which takes a series of twists and turns on a track that sets the bar high for the rest of Poppin’.

Unlike  many  jazz musicians, Hank Mobley didn’t cover many standards on the albums he released on Blue Note Records. However, he covered Darn That Dream where Sonny Clark’s piano takes the lead before Hank Mobley’s wistful tenor saxophone plays. As it combines with the piano and drums played with brushes and then Art Farmer’s muted trumpet. All the time, the rhythm section provide an understated backdrop. The music is laidback with a late-night sound, and is perfect to reflect and ruminate. It’s a beautiful cover of much-loved standard that gets even better when Hank Mobley playing unaccompanied delivers a breathtaking solo that is his finest on the album.

The tempo rises on Gettin’ Into Something where the rhythm section propel the arrangement along and pianist Sonny Clark’s playing is bluesy. Soon, the horns enter braying, rasping and growling ensuring the arrangement swings. Then Hank Mobley unleashes a solo that bobs and weaves and inspires Art Farmer to improvise. His playing is effortless and  inspired as the solo takes twists and turns his  raspy trumpet soaring. It’s then the turn of Pepper Adams and Sonny Clark who plays a fleet fingered solo before the horns play the opening theme for the final time. In doing so, they  showcase their considerable skills during a track that is also a reminder of Hank Mobley’s compositional skills.

There’s no drop in tempo during Tune-Up, which was written by Miles Davis and featured on his 1956 Blue Haze. This light and airy sounding track is driven along by Philly Joe Jones’ drums which fizz and hiss and combine with Paul Chambers bass. It’s not a walking bass. Instead, it’s more of a power walking or yomping bass as he helps power the arrangement along as the horns play the song’s main melody. When the solos arrive Art Farmer and Pepper Adams are first up,  before pianist Sonny Clark’s fingers glide across the keyboard effortlessly at a perilous pace his playing proves to be flawless as he gives breathtaking performance. Not to be outdone, Paul Chambers bows his bass which adds a contrast and a moderne sound before Hank Mobley steps forward and plays with speed, power and control.  Philly Joe Jones then powers and his way around his kit delivering a thunderous solo before the band play as one and revisit the head theme during what’s this near eleven minute epic.

Closing Poppin’ is East Of Brooklyn where  the horns play the main theme while the rhythm section lay down the groove that starts of with  a percussive sound, then Latin-style syncopations and a much more traditional swing style.  Then when the solos arrive Hank Mobley takes centrestage first before the other members of the front line enjoy the opportunity to shine. Art Farmer and then Pepper Adams step forward before the baton passes to pianist Sonny Clark who yet again plays a starring role. Last to showcase his considerable skills is Paul Chamber on this swinging slice of hard bop.

Poppin’ was belatedly  discovered in 1980 by producer Michael Cuscuna in the Blue Note Records’ archives and it was released in Japan on vinyl. 

Forty years later, Hank Mobley’s long-lost hidden gem has been reissued by Blue Note Records as part of their Tone Poet audiophile vinyl reissue series. Poppin’ is a welcome addition to the series and is  a reminder of one of the greatest tenor saxophonists of his generation, Hank Mobley. 

He was described by critic Leonard Feather as the: “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone.” What he meant was that Hank Mobley’s tone wasn’t as aggressive and thick as John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, and  it wasn’t as soft and cool as Lester Young or Stan Getz. Instead, it was somewhere in between. 

Hank Mobley was a versatile tenor saxophonist, and one of Alfred Lion’s favourite musicians to record. That was why he recorded so many sessions with him. Sadly, some of these sessions  were shelved and were only released much later. That was the case with Poppin’ which was belatedly released in 1980. Why it wasn’t released sooner seems strange, given the quality of the album? 

It must have been frustrating for Hank Mobley who had been forced to retire from music by then. At least he saw Poppin’ released in 1980, and then four years later in 1984, Curtain Call  was released. The following year Hank Mobley made a comeback.

On the ’22nd’ and ’23rd’ of  November 1985, he took to the stage at the Angry Squire in New York. Then on January the ’11th’ 1986, Hank Mobley was played in a quartet with Duke Jordan that featured vocalist  Lodi Carr. Sadly, that was his swansong and on May the ‘30th ‘ 1986  Hank Mobley passed away in Philly aged just fifty-five. That day, jazz music was in mourning after losing the “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,”  and one of the finest purveyors of hard bop, who could swing and then some, as his long-lost hidden gem Poppin’ proves.

Hank Mobley-Poppin’.

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