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Aidan Levy

Aidan Levy

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10 By 3: Mobley, Morgan And Byrd In 1967

January 23 2013

Blue Note was having a banner year in 1967. The sounds of hard bop emanated from Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey as the label’s stable of artists churned out records at an astonishing rate. Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill, Thad Jones, and Dexter Gordon were all with Blue Note at the time, and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeters Lee Morgan and Donald Byrd were experiencing some of the most prolific and vital periods in their careers. Among them, Mobley, Morgan, and Byrd recorded 10 albums as leaders in 1967 alone.

Often critically underrated during this period, the three forged a genre-defining hard bop sound with their recording blitz that year, making music that never sounds dated, with a well-wrought quality that belies the conveyor belt release schedule. Blue Note producer Alfred Lion had stumbled on a commercial formula that incorporated at least one bluesy shuffle, one Latin tune, a swinging hard bop arrangement, a slower straight-ahead tune, and various permutations of these styles to fill out the rest of an album. The formula wasn't necessarily confining, though, and it led to some of the most thrilling hard bop releases of the '60s, with Blue Note artists serving as sidemen on each other's albums in a manner analogous to the Hollywood studio system. Here is a look back at these 10 albums from the peak of the hard bop era.

Donald Byrd, Blackjack: This album, recorded January 9, at the label’s first session of the year, prefigures Byrd's later transition into funk, while staying rooted in hard bop. Many of the tracks function as extended jams for the powerhouse band; Mobley, alto saxophonist Sonny Red, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Walter Booker, and drummer Billy Higgins. Red sets the mood with his bright tone, blowing hard on "Beale Street" and the jaunty title track. Mobley doesn't seem as comfortable here as he does on his own albums—he is even more subdued than was typically the case—and never attempts to upstage Byrd and Red. The title track, one of two Byrd compositions, is written in the same hard-grooving vein as Lee Morgan's 1964 hit “The Sidewinder.” "West of the Pecos" is the closest Byrd gets to a full-fledged hard bop outing, skating effortlessly over the changes, while "Eldorado" is the highlight of the album, a slow-burner reminiscent of Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth.

Donald Byrd, Slow Drag: Byrd used the same sidemen from Blackjack on this May 12 date, though he lost Mobley, paring down to alto and trumpet only in the horn section. The title track, designed to be the album's "hit," reflects its name, creating an illusion of elasticity in time that supersedes Blackjack in its bottomless groove; Red is never more in his element. "Book's Bossa" provides the album's taste of Latin flair, another component of the prevailing Blue Note formula, and Walton plays it cool, having anchored Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers during the early '60s. "Jelly Roll" lays down another "Sidewinder"-style shuffle, and Byrd plays mostly backgrounds under Red's blistering solo. Album closer "My Ideal," the sole ballad, shows Byrd in a rare display of emotional vulnerability, a master class in how to blow a soft melody.

Donald Byrd, The Creeper: On his last foray into hard bop before transitioning into the style that ultimately made his name, Byrd employs a different crop of sidemen, keeping only Sonny Red, and using baritone saxophone great Pepper Adams, Chick Corea on piano, Miroslav Vitous on bass, and Mickey Roker on drums for an October 5 session (one week earlier, the same group, but with Joe Chambers on drums, recorded two tunes that remain shelved). Corea was only 26 at the time, but already played with a maturity far beyond his years and contributed two tunes in his inimitable style, "Samba Yanta" and "Chico-San." The only cover is the gripping Michel Legrand ballad "I Will Wait for You," from the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which Byrd handles with understated panache. Though not considered a classic, the album does have some gems, including the Byrd original "Blues Well Done" and the brackish title track, penned by Red.

Hank Mobley, Third Season: Mobley bolsters the rhythm section from Blackjack and Slow Drag with guitarist Sonny Greenwich alongside Cedar Walton, Walter Booker, and Billy Higgins. Lee Morgan filled the trumpet chair, with first-call Blue Note sideman James Spaulding on alto saxophone. Mobley composed all but one of the six tunes for this February 24 session, which were mostly springboards for extended improvisation. He had been on the label since 1955, and was no stranger to the hard bop idiom at this point, having largely established the style over the preceding decade-plus. Opener "An Aperitif" captures the '60s mod aesthetic with its mesh of ride cymbals and horn hits. "Don't Cry, Just Sigh" is the album's token slow, bluesy tune, and its noirish tones are fully explored by Morgan, who knew how to murmur from the shadows like few others. The hard-swinging title track bursts the generally strict harmonic boundaries of these albums to a surprising degree, and the group capitalizes on the opportunity to play "out."

Hank Mobley, Far Away Lands: Mobley retains Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins here, but swaps out several players, using Byrd on trumpet and Ron Carter on bass while losing the alto saxophone and guitar. The tenorman composes four of the six tunes for this May 26 session, with the exception of the title track, which is by Jimmy Heath. Opener "Dab of This and That" begins with a bass pedal that allows for some modal explorations, with Heath's "Far Away Lands" emulating Eastern sounds that give way to a driving hard bop form. Between the shuffling "The Hippity Hop," Latin tune "Bossa for Baby," and Byrd's "Soul Time," Mobley dispenses with the slow blues requirement, maintaining a light atmosphere with plenty of opportunities for high-octane hard bop showmanship.

Hank Mobley, Hi Voltage: Mobley only sticks with drummer Billy Higgins from his previous lineup, using bassist Bob Cranshaw and pianist John Hicks to complete his rhythm section for this October 9 date, and drafting alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and trumpeter Blue Mitchell to flank him up front. Mobley composed all six tunes, and adheres meticulously to the Blue Note formula; "High Voltage" is an up-tempo shuffle with pointed horn hits, "Two and One" is a standard swinging hard bop tune that keeps the listener’s leg jumping, "No More Goodbyes" is a muscular ballad, "Bossa De Luxe" the bossa nova (surprise), and "Flirty Gerty" is the medium-tempo bluesy pressure cooker. Mitchell and McLean let loose on the latter entry, reminding listeners why they were key players for Blue Note throughout the '60s. Mobley's ballad playing here should not be missed, with Hicks as the ideal accompanist for his burly tones.

Lee Morgan, Standards: Though not every track on this album was a bona fide standard when it was recorded on January 13, 1967, Standards sat in the Blue Note vault long enough for some of its tracks to mature by 1998, when it was finally released. But when Morgan went to Englewood Cliffs to record, "This Is the Life," from Golden Boy, "Lot of Livin' to Do," from Bye Bye Birdie, and "Somewhere," from West Side Story were each less than a decade old. Perhaps he meant the title ironically, considering that much of the American Songbook originated on the Great White Way. Despite having a top-flight group of sidemen, Standards deviated sharply from the Blue Note formula and wound up on the shelf; lacking a bossa or any commercial hit like "The Sidewinder," it proved too hard to market at the time. Still, the playing is excellent throughout. Herbie Hancock delivers bright, melodic filigrees on the mix of show tunes with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Mickey Roker behind him, and the airtight horn section features Wayne Shorter, Pepper Adams, and James Spaulding. Morgan's sensitivity on "God Bless the Child" is unmatched among ballads in his catalog.

Lee Morgan, Sonic Boom: Morgan employs the de facto house rhythm section of Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins, with Ron Carter in the bass chair, and brings in a relatively rare presence: David "Fathead" Newman on tenor saxophone. This album was actually recorded at two separate sessions—the title track on April 14, and everything else two weeks later, on April 28. Morgan pens five of the six compositions, with the exception of the ballad "I'll Never Be the Same." He skips the mid-tempo bossa on this outing, instead offering closer "Mumbo Jumbo," a workmanlike straight-ahead Latin-infused tune, but otherwise, he sticks to Lion’s formula. Nevertheless, Sonic Boom has a prickly originality to it right out of the gate, opening with "Sneaky Pete," a puckish tune that the group positively tears apart. "The Mercenary" builds the highly charged momentum; the team of Morgan and Newman have a rawness to their playing not often heard. Newman goes in for the kill on "Fathead," a quintessential hard bop tune ripe for his fat sound.

Lee Morgan, The Procrastinator: Recorded July 14, 1967, Blue Note shelved this outing until 1978, when it was finally released. Its title could refer to the album's inordinately long gestation period, or to Morgan's general laissez-faire approach to playing. The consummate technician, he always holds some cards in abeyance, as evidenced by the laid back upper-modulating groove of the title track, with its madrigal-style introduction, or "Party Time," reminiscent of a Jazz Messengers medium-tempo potboiler. Morgan relies on Blue Note veterans throughout: drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Ron Carter anchor a band also featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone. "Rio," the token bossa, opens with a bassline that channels Horace Silver’s "Song for My Father" and sounds eerily similar to Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave," which was first released the same year.

Lee Morgan, The Sixth Sense: Morgan once again employs traditional Blue Note hard bop small group orchestration, using drummer Billy Higgins, pianist Cedar Walton, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, tenor saxophonist Frank Mitchell, and Victor Sproles on bass, but there is a definite tonal shift that separates this album, recorded November 10, from his previous releases. The title track and "Short Count" both explore complex harmony and unorthodox voicings in a way Morgan had mostly shied away from earlier in his Blue Note career, making this album something of a landmark in his discography, alongside 1964’s Search for the New Land. The Sixth Sense represents some of his boldest playing, and presages the explorations he conducted before his untimely death. Walton's "Afreaka" delves into African polyrhythms, and even the kaleidoscopic album art bespeaks a more experimental approach to form.

Photos courtesy of Mosaic Images