One needs only to listen to Eastern Standard Time to realize that Wendell Hobbs is a saxophonic chameleon. It's nothing less than astounding to hear his interpretation of Barron's tune, "Joanne Julia," for he sounds uncannily like Phil Woods, another one of Hobbs' teachers. From the bright unmistakable alto tone to the swelling dynamics to the biting extroversion of his phrasing, Hobbs take command of a tune that's engaging in its own right, and he directs his interpretation to the listener with vocal-like lines.
But what's remarkable is that just when one thinks that Hobbs is pegged, that his sound hangs upon one approach, he develops an entirely different interpretation of the languid "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," for he sounds for all the world like Dexter Gordon. Abandoning the upbeat PhilWoodsian voice, Hobbs stretches out the notes to their emotionally affecting limits, down to the last remnants of pitch as a tone dissolves into a puff of breath. Taking exceptional care to create a sound that's appropriate to the intent of the songwriter, Hobbs switches among alto, tenor and soprano saxes based upon the exigencies of the music, rather than rigidly imposing his own approach to a tune whose words may be communicating a different message.
And then there's the bebop interest that Barron recognizes. The first track on Eastern Standard Time charges down a hard-top track that seems to derive straight from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, complete with the teaming of saxophone with trumpet in the front line. In this case, the trumpeter is John Swana, another Philadelphian, whose usual unhurried crystalline purity of tone belies his ability to attack a number with clearly defined phrasing, in spite of the prestissimo tempo. Beyond the dual horn leadership on the number, the tune succeeds because of the thrill of the group's dynamism combined with locked-in cohesiveness, evident as soon as everyone comes in after Tom Cohen's kickoff of a drum solo.
But such comparisons to "old masters" do an injustice to the professionalism of the group and the originality of its arrangements. Rather, the point is that this is a flexible quintet that recognizes the value of a tune, adapting to its needs. Hobbs' composition, "A Lullaby for Hailey," allows him to lope along in three-four time on soprano sax as he obviously enjoys himself, such is the delight in performing that he imparts. Or his "Blue Note" creates the occasion for another saxophone/trumpet unison hard-bop chorus, this time with elements of "Airegin," before allowing for successive solos by Swana, bassist Howie Thompson and himself.
Saxophonist Tim Price, who wrote the liner notes, makes the point that Hobbs falls within the Philadelphia tradition of musicians who make the music they play their own, instead of repeating already-recorded versions. In these times of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's replaying of jazz classics without any real personality of its own and without any intriguing alterations of arrangements, Price has a point. The best jazz is that which comes from the heart and remains unpredictable, as does Hobbs', even as he has absorbed the lessons of the masters, including fellow Philadelphians like Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath and Bill Barron.