Vinyl Spotlight: Hank Mobley with Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan (Blue Note 1540)

April 4, 2017 /
  • Japanese Toshiba reissue circa 1983 (BN 1540; mono)

Personnel:

  • Donald Byrd, trumpet
  • Lee Morgan, trumpet
  • Hank Mobley, tenor saxophone
  • Horace Silver, piano
  • Paul Chambers, bass
  • Charlie Persip, drums

Recorded November 25, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey
Originally released January 1957

It’s been a while since I first discovered this album but I’m pretty sure I first heard it on Spotify back when they had that cool Blue Note app that allowed you to sift through the albums like actual records. This album mesmerized me instantly; the thunderous chorus of horns that introduces the album alerts the listener to the arrival of jazz royalty.

There was something different about this sound, though. The horns had a tremendous sonic impact. The unique arrangement of two trumpets and one tenor saxophone was certainly playing a role, but recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder had clearly found a rare synergy with his equipment that day and I have yet to hear this horn sound topped by any other jazz recording. It is intense, smooth, and cohesive all at once. Van Gelder was getting a similar sound on other albums in late 1956 but perhaps the particular combination of Mobley, Byrd, and Morgan sets this album apart from those. The engineer’s choices regarding microphone positioning, preamplifier gain, compression, and instrument balance certainly played a role in the creation of this monumental sound as well.

The album’s compositions, all written by leader Hank Mobley, are consistently menacing. The haunting harmonies of “Touch and Go” and “Double Whammy” carry a sense of foreboding, and while “Barrel of Funk” has a rather upbeat “A” section, the tune ultimately transforms into an intriguing progression of minor-key origins at its bridge. Even the album’s most upbeat tune, “Mobleymania”, manages to keep listeners on the edge of their seats with harmonic tension.

Blue Note catalog number 1540 features Mobley’s characteristic sweet, smooth tone throughout. As a youthful pair of trumpeters, Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan are difficult to tell apart. Horace Silver does little to detract from this star-studded frontline, and the forefather of bop humbly yet tastefully blends into the background for much of the program. Silver’s comping is never boastful here, but at the same time it falls short of embodying the pianist’s big musical personality and signature funk (it wouldn’t be long before Silver would ditch sideman work for good and become the leader of his own legendary quintet). To round things out, drummer Charlie Persip sits at the throne behind his drum kit in the far corner of Rudy Van Gelder’s living room studio. I cannot get enough of the beautiful simplicity of Van Gelder’s mono drum sound at Hackensack in the late ’50s. Persip sounds just as good as anyone in that room and his straight-ahead timekeeping compliments Van Gelder’s technique exceedingly well.

Beyond a repress in the late ’60s after Blue Note had been sold to Liberty Records (the proof of which lies in the existence of copies with “RVG” etchings but no “ear”), this album has never been reissued in the United States, not even on compact disc (it has, however, appeared on numerous compilations including Mosaic’s box set of Mobley’s ’50s Blue Note recordings). The Japanese almost never left a Blue Note stone unturned though and this album is no exception, having been reissued by Toshiba-EMI five times in various formats. I was also considering the King reissue from the same year when I bought this 1983 Toshiba copy on eBay from a Japanese seller but ultimately chose the Toshiba not only because it was cheaper but I also noticed that the fonts used on the Toshiba cover more accurately portrayed those of the original artwork (King album covers also often admit an unnaturally high level of contrast). This was my first Japanese Blue Note vinyl reissue venture and I remember being stunned by how dead-quiet this pressing was.

My dream is to someday own a vintage copy of this album with RVG etchings. Until then, this Toshiba reissue is sure to get lots of turntable time in my house.