The power of underestimation

The power of underestimation

Hans continues his exploration of the perfect whisky and jazz pairings

Whisky & Culture | 06 Nov 2020 | Issue 171 | By Hans Offringa

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Although considered one of the founders of the Jazz Messengers, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley was unrightfully underestimated. He was born in Eastman, Georgia on 7 July, 1930, but grew up near Newark, New Jersey in a musical family. He switched to tenor sax at the age of 16, having listened to sax players like Dexter Gordon and Lester Young, stimulated by his uncle. At 18 going on 19, Paul Gayten hired him to play rhythm and blues, which he continued to do between 1949 and 1951 all over the USA. According to Gayten, “Hank was beautiful, he played alto, tenor and baritone and did a lot of the writing.”

In 1951 Mobley switched to jazz. Soon he played with the incredibly talented drummer Max Roach who loved his approach and tried to contract him for his quintet, but to no avail. In 1954 he found his place in the hard bop scene playing side by side with Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver and Art Blakey, thus being at the core of the first Jazz Messengers line-up. He continued to play with Dizzy and Horace long after the first Messengers broke up.

Mobley was not only known for his melodic way of playing with a bluesy undertone, but also as one of the truly fine composers of the hard bop period. He performed with many great musicians of that era, such as Freddie Hubbard, Winton Kelly and Lee Morgan. With the latter trumpet player, he would be especially productive.

In the early 1960s Mobley joined Miles Davis, who was in search of a replacement for John Coltrane. Davis fired him since he could not live up to the expectations created by Coltrane. Critics often described Mobley’s playing style to be in between Coltrane and Getz, which surely was not a downplay on his capabilities. He simply had a laid-back non-flamboyant style, which might have been one of the reasons that it took so long before he became appreciated in a much wider circle.

The advice his uncle Dave gave him in his early years also contributed to his attitude as a musician: “If you are with somebody who plays loud, you play soft. If somebody plays fast, you play slow. If you try to play the same thing they are playing, you’re in trouble!”

Unfortunately he would not live to see himself recognised as one of the great hard bop tenor saxophonists and composers. Problems with his lungs caused him to take an early retirement around 1975.

His now famous album Another Workout illustrates the negligence shown by the recording industry for this modest but gifted musician. Although it was recorded in 1961, it was released 24 years later, in 1985, shortly before his death.

Hank Mobley died on 30 May, 1986 from pneumonia, virtually forgotten. Luckily, during the past years, there have been several signs of a Hank Mobley revival.

According to Robert Spencer in a 2004 article for All About Jazz, Mobley wasn’t born in the right time, “Sonny Rollins owned the 1950s and John Coltrane quickly claimed the 1960s ... If the great Hidden Hand had sent him [Mobley] into the world in 1910 instead of 1930, he might be recognised as one of the giants of the tenor saxophone...”

Now for the whisky pairing to complete the story, and perhaps your perfect evening of whisky and music. Picture this: beautiful natural surroundings, undisturbed by mass tourism, one distillery, approximately 200 inhabitants and 5,000 red deer. Welcome to the Isle of Jura, only separated by a relatively small strip of water from its larger sister Islay, but producing an entirely different type of whisky, largely underestimated. The operation even started under another name: Small Isles Distillery. When the licence changed hands in 1831, the new lessee, William Abercrombie, introduced the name Isle of Jura. Until 1901 that licence would change hands five times and the distillery narrowly escaped bankruptcy.
As if that were not enough, in 1901 licence holder Ferguson entered an apparently unsolvable dispute with his landlord, one of the mighty Campbells, closed the distillery and shortly thereafter removed the roofs.

End of story? By no means. An entirely different story would be written in the 1940s, this time by famous novelist and social commentator George Orwell, who allegedly wrote his sombre scenario for the future in a cottage on the island, between 1946 and 1949. Looking at Jura’s geographical position, the working title for his novel The Last Man In Europe seems well chosen, but Orwell finally decided to name it 1984.

In 1960 white knight Mackinlay & Co started to build an entirely new distillery, using the talents of the famous Scottish architect William Delmé-Evans. Three years later the first spirit would run from the two new stills. Over the decades the distillery changed hands various times and ended up in the portfolio of Whyte & Mackay.

Throughout the years various bottlings were launched, not all being noticed at large, partly because they were limited editions. One of the memorable limited bottlings is the 19-year-old “1984” from 2003, to celebrate the 100th birthday of Eric Arthur Blair, better known as the aforementioned George Orwell.

Blue Note
Hank Mobley was one of the founding fathers of hard bop with the Jazz Messengers’ first line-up. His playing was always precise; he hit the right note at the right time, but in a laid-back, almost subdued manner. When he died in 1986 he was largely forgotten. Fortunately, his music has been revived during the past decades.

Jura suffered a similar lot. The eponymous island is neighbour to the Isle of Islay. Standing in its shadow, Jura had to create its own market. It is a tender malt that requires time to be fully recognised.

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Jura Seven Wood
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