I have been very taken lately with the playing of the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone, Hank Mobley (1930-1984). In a previous post, I said that Dexter Gordon had first referred to Mobley that way, but since then I have seen the phrase attributed to critic Leonard Feather. But whoever said it, it's an apt description. Mobley was an excellent, assured, but not brilliant, improviser. His saxophone tone was soft (I mean the opposite of hard, not the opposite of loud), with an oddly hollow quality; he certainly had nothing of the in-your-face, aggresive sound of Coltrane or Joe Henderson, both contemporaries of his. The fact that his sound doesn't immediately command attention forces the listener to concentrate on Mobley's improvised lines, which swing hard and are interesting without being innovative.
Mobley made many excellent albums, mostly for Blue Note, but most fans and critics agree that he hit his peak with Soul Station from 1960, with his next two albums, Roll Call and Workout only slightly less sublime. This seems about right to me, although I would hate to have to choose between the first two in calling one the best. On all of these, his technique, imagination, and sense of swing are all perfectly in balance. On his earlier and later albums, as good as most of them are, this equilibrium is not quite as gratifying. But all of the Mobley albums I've heard are worth hearing - the earlier ones have an appealing relaxation, and the later ones have a harder, Trane-tinged edge.
Even though Mobley replaced Coltrane in Miles Davis's quintet,* I've never been crazy about his playing in Miles' group. Maybe he just sounds too earthbound next to Miles' horn. It's telling, though, that according to Eddie Henderson, the African-American fans that were still the core of Miles' nightclub audience much preferred the group with Mobley over the Coltrane edition of the quintet.
A personal connection - Hank Mobley was born in Eastman, Georgia, my grandmother's hometown. I doubt that the Mobleys and the Hursts had much contact, unless some of the former worked for some of the latter. Hank's parents were smart enough to get the hell out of Dodge County when he was just a kid. Good thing for him, and good thing for jazz.
*Actually, he replaced Sonny Stitt, who replaced Trane. Not many people remember Stitt's short stint in that band. Miles' response to Stitt's demands for more money was to show him the door.