Ithaca to Berlin With Hank Mobley


Hank Mobley Photo by Francis Wolff. 

It took me sixteen hours door-to-door in automobile, plane and subway train to get from my house in the center of New York state to this apartment in the center of Berlin.

Last time I did this trip was in August of last year, a point at which there was a buffer of several months between the Paris terror attacks that bookended 2015. Travelers appeared calm even in the heat and crowds of last summer.

Yesterday the mood at Newark airport among many of those travelling to Europe seemed edgy if not downright worried.

Though it should hardly be a comfort, one has to remember that the most dangerous part of any trip is the drive to the airport. In my case, that leg of the journey was almost four hours through the brown, pre-spring landscape of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—the last of these crucial state for the history of jazz because so many of its recordings were made there, first in Hackensack and then in Englewood Cliffs, at the studios of the legendary optometrist-turned-engineer, Rudy Van Gelder.

With threats both domestic and foreign looming, I grabbed Hank Mobley’s Turnaround  on the way out the door. It is a the great, if unduly neglected, albums that is—or should be—celebrating its 50th anniversary. 1965 was a banner year for Blue Note records, one of many high points in the decade-plus Golden Age the label presided over. Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage; Horace Silver’s The Cape Verdean Blues and Song for My Father; Lee Morgan’s Cornbread and The Gigolo; Wayne Shorter’s The All Seeing Eye and Soothwayer: all these stem from that banner year. Listening to them is like walking into a gallery of Rembrandts.

From this embarrassment of fifty-old riches, the fifty-year-old driver chose Mobley safeguard him through the perilous bi-ways and autobahns: along the flank of the Catskills, following stretches of the Susquehanna, then through the Poconos, joining the Delaware at the Water Gap, and then down towards the Jersey marshes and the Atlantic littoral just south of the site Mobley’s 1965 Blue Note album.

Turnaround is an unusual record in that it combines two distinct sessions separated by two years and two sets of sidemen. The first from March of 1963 summoned that great tandem of Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. They rock and banter through the multi-cultural alternations between a Latin and swing in “East of the Village,” one of five Mobley originals on the album. Herbie Hancock adds his own propulsions at the piano. Thus the personnel brings together two distinct generations of Miles Davis’ rhythm sections. The Turnaround quintet is completed by Donald Byrd in coruscating flight.

As a composer Mobley had unsurpassed gift for exploring rhythmic, melodic complexity but without confounding the flow of ideas—and the listener’s enjoyment of them—with arbitrary, eccentric effects. Mobley is the most intrepid classicist of the Blue Note school. This can be heard also his improvisations: imaginative, sure, generous, and flamboyant only when they have to be.

The second date heard on Turnaround took place in February of 1965. Mobley’s compositions for that session gave much space for the insouciant talents of the drummer, Billy Higgins, as in the churchy grove of the title track in the unlikely key of D-Flat—a black-note blues that frames a harmonically static bridge of eighteen bars with two strains of sixteen bar, making for a pleasing, but irregular total of thirty-four. The two bars added to the typical jazz symmetry of thirty-two provides Higgins the chance shouting out his true belief in the power of hard bop. Barry Harris, a suave master of the true bop arabesque in the tradition Bud Powell, is not the powerful, gutsy pianist you might expect for such a tune, but his elegant, articulate playing adds the filament of grace to Mobley’s guttural calls and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s virtuosic exuberances. Even in the two year gap between the sessions, one hears evolutions in Mobley’s playing: the selection of honks and cracks and rocking figures through wide intervals echo the style Coltrane, who put out A Love Supreme and Ascension in 1965.

Bolstered by the assurances of Mobley’s genius, I parked the car at a lot not from Northern State Prison and made my way towards the Terminal C.

Inside I encountered for the first time sniffing dogs in the security lines with signs on them advising “Do Not Pet,” though it wasn’t clear if they were after drugs or explosives.

Either way, nerves appeared frayed in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks. To the threat of terror I attributed the gasps muffled shrieks in economy during some “routine turbulence” over the North Atlantic.

No one in my vicinity of the plane seemed to explore the channel of the seatback entertainment menu dedicated to the James Bond catalog. Sure, 007 always wins against the terrorists, but a lot of stuff gets blown up in the thwarting.

Next to me a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf chose Forrest Gump. This brought back my own terrifying memories of another transatlantic flight some twenty years ago when I’d foolishly endured this numbing clear-cut of American history. As Gump sits on the bus stop bench at the end of his rural road in movie’s final scene, the soul of his beloved (Robin Wright) as symbolized by that downy white feather is lofted towards heaven on bilious symphonic updrafts and tinkling piano strains. In the face of that multi-sensory sentimental assault, I had been unable to suppress a tear or twenty, the ending of the film unhappily coinciding with the turning on of the cabin lights and the breakfast service starting to panzer down the aisle. The girl next to me had offered a sympathetic look to complete my degradation. It was the absolute low point of my career at 39,000 feet.

On last night’s flight, I kept furtively checking to see if Gump would moisten the cheek of the woman next to me, but she was made of tougher stuff than I.

The landing was hard and there was tepid applause from school group of American kids.

In the mist of the Brandenburg morning and the even denser fog of my jet-lagged brain, I’d forgotten that it was Good Friday.

Given my drowsy confusion, I was surprised at how few people were on the streets until the reason eventually dawned on me when I realized that all the shops were closed, too. I felt a bit like Ray Milland in the Lost Weekend when the alcoholic writer he plays emerges from his apartment with his typewriter. He’s so desperate for drink that he’ll go so far as to pawn his means of livelihood. But it’s Yom Kippur and none of the pawnshops are open.

Having managed only a half-bite of the worst croissant ever to be lofted towards the heavens, I was eager for some coffee and something to eat. As I straggled down the deserted Akazienstraße with its darkened boutiques, wine shops, cafés, and restaurants, my spirits flagged. Then I spotted the light on in Habibi, purveyor of the best falafel in Berlin. Thank god for cultural diversity!

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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