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 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).

I cannot get enough of the beautiful simplicity of Rudy Van Gelder’s mono drum sound at Hackensack in the late ’50s. Charlie Persip sounds just as good as anyone in that living room. His straight-ahead timekeeping compliments Van Gelder’s technique exceedingly well, and this is demonstrated on numerous records including collector favorite Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims.

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.

Epilogue

Sometime ago I came across a Van Gelder-mastered original of this title. To my dismay, it had a skip so I returned it. I had put that record out of my memory until I went to make the audio clips of my Toshiba copy for this article and remembered that I recorded the original before I sent it back. So as an added bonus I am presenting needle drops of both disks for comparison as well as frequency spectrum analyses of each:

“Double Whammy” (Original Mono Pressing)

“Double Whammy” (Toshiba Reissue)

Original pressing mastered by Rudy Van Gelder
Toshiba reissue

While the original sounds like it has quite a powerful midrange, it lacks low end in comparison to the Toshiba, whereas the Toshiba has what sounds like a recessed midrange compared to its (much) more prominent low end and greater detail in the highest frequencies. I felt like I could also hear what mastering engineer Steve Hoffman has identified as a frequency boost around 5 kHz on Van Gelder originals (in 2011, Hoffman discovered mastering notes of the engineer’s for the 1959 Blue Note LP LD+3). The theory is that Van Gelder would have provided this high-midrange boost to give his records more presence on the popular budget phonographs of the day and that boost gives his records more “bite” to this day.

The notes also suggest that Van Gelder implemented significant cuts of all frequencies below 45 Hz and above 12 kHz, which would explain the lack of bass and high-end detail on the original. By today’s mastering standards, these choices are pretty extreme but they are consistent with Van Gelder’s concern to get his records sounding as good as possible on budget players (note that Hoffman’s findings do not necessarily imply that Van Gelder mastered all his LPs in the ’50s and ’60s this way).

So what are you hearing? Any preference?

  • bopmodalfree

    Wow, big difference between the original and Toshiba. The OG has that edge and clarity and the Toshiba sounds muffled by comparison. Interesting to “see” frequency differences between the original and your Toshiba pressing, and to hear your feelings about the high quality of RVG’s recording particulars for this session. I would add that this album actually can be had on CD, since I had it. It’s one of the albums on the 8-fer budget CD on Hank Mobley, with two albums on each disc, though I can’t remember who puts it out. Sound quality is acceptable I suppose, but a good retrospective of Hank’s output and was definitely good enough for me to realize “I want that one”, when it came to this record.

    So I actually succeeded in getting a 47 West 63rd pressing (with ear) of this a few years ago, right after I caught the vinyl jazz bug and was a little nuts trying to get original Blue Notes off eBay. Suffice it to say that from a collectors viewpoint this record is the crown jewel in my collection, even though it has a little surface noise, but honest once the music starts you can’t hear it because it’s pure high-octane. I’m also struck that this pressing comes off as “trebly” (or “tart”) when I listen to my copy, and it would be improved with a more robust bass. But beyond that, the sonics of the horns are tremendous. You say “smooth”, I would call it creamy smooth. Yes, I suppose it’s tart AND creamy! Of the other vintage mono Blue Notes I have (not many), none sound like they’re recorded quite like this one. Powerful stuff. It’s such a nice piece that I’ve almost been a bit afraid to play it. Thanks for this post which should nudge me to play it more.

    • Hiya bopmodal,

      I have the ’90s Toshiba CD, and I suppose your CD compilation is one which I eluded to above.

      I was a little confused when you a said a pressing sounds “trebly/tart”, were you talking about your original? I wonder if you feel your copy sounds any different than mine. Admittedly, my “original” had West 63rd labels but no ear, though I doubt this alone would be the cause of any audible difference between your copy and mine. We should also need to keep in mind that your playback is on an entirely different rig than mine.

      • bopmodalfree

        I was referring to my copy, but yours sounds very similar despite it being a digital sample that I listened to through earbuds, the main signature being that clarity and high frequency energy. On the same rig, I would expect yours and mine to sound quite similar, based on my experience. So far I’m a fan of “non-ear” originals.