Few occasions can produce as much musical excitement as a gladiatoral meeting of tough tenors. An all too rare event these days, if you came of age in Chicago in the '60's and '70's you had bountiful opportunities both on the South Side (McKee's Show Lounge) and North (Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase) to hear the strongest and most personal voices on the instrument--Stitt, Jug, Dex, Moody, Jaws, Cohn, Sims, Turrentine, Ira, and Griff-- taking after each other in pairs, threes, and sometimes in fours. No recording can do justice to capturing such moments, but few, in my (apparently minority) opinion, fall as short as "Blowin' Session."
Some of the blame lies with the programming. There's no shortage of Griffin to be heard, but the presence of Lee Morgan simply deprives both Mobley and Trane of comparable blowing time. But the real downer on this session is the quality of the audio. Who would have ever thought it possible to practically "homogenize" voices as distinctive as those of Griffin, Mobley, and Coltrane? The sonic canvas is depthless and dimensionless, the horns miked so closely that each is constantly on the verge of breaking up. Griffin's sound, in fact, is distorted throughout much of the program, a relentlessly grating roughness that makes it difficult to appreciate his normally crisp articulations and fluent melodic lines. Mobley and Coltrane, though artificially boosted in the sonic mix, come off better, thanks to Hank's less aggressive approach and to Trane's characteristically unforced use of the altissimo register. Overall, Coltrane's playing is surprisingly conservative on this session and his role quite limited. Of the three players, the real surprise, for some listeners, may be Mobley, who eschews charging ahead like a locomotive in favor of some thoughtful, "reactive" musical ideas. (Dig, especially, his masterfully constructed solo on the "Alternate Take" of ""Smoke Stack," which also features the best Coltrane on the date.) Unfortunately, Blakey's drums take their place in the foreground with the horns on Van Gelder's flat aural canvas, overshadowing both Paul Chambers' bass and Wynton Kelly's piano except for the solos.
If you really want to compare the different and utterly unique sounds of Coltrane and Mobley, pick up "Someday My Prince Will Come," the Miles Davis session on Columbia that features both tenor players. If you want to hear the undistorted, "natural" sound of Johnny Griffin, go to his work on Riverside with Monk or on Jazzland with Lockjaw Davis or on Delmark with Ira Sullivan. If you're a musician and wish to hear and transcribe note for note (as I did several of the solos) some marvelous playing by Coltrane, Mobley, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims, pick up "Tenor Conclave" on Prestige (it's still Van Gelder, but at Prestige Miles and the musicians were more in control of the sound than the engineer). Mobley opens the session on "Rhythm" changes and closes it (following Coltrane's solo!) with a knock-out solo and cadenza on "How Deep Is the Ocean." A recording with lots of notes, but all equally beautiful to those who have the ear for it.
Unless I simply received a bad pressing (from BMG), "Blowin' Session," especially after all the hype that it's received, is one of the most overblown recordings I've ever come across.