Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Music of Miles Davis and Hank Mobley, Part 1: "Someday My Prince Will Come" (1961)

Miles Davis's lovely wife, Frances Taylor, on the cover of his "Someday My Prince Will Come" album, 1961.

Miles Davis, 1961.

Miles Davis playing with his Harmon mute, 1961.

Tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, circa 1960.
Miles Davis was a jazz player of supreme innovation throughout his long musical career. I’ve previously written a short essay about his landmark 1959 album “Kind of Blue,” and another essay that’s an overview of his music in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For a brief period of time in 1961 one of my favorite jazz artists, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, worked with Miles Davis. Mobley only recorded once with Davis in the studio, producing the excellent 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come,” but Mobley is also featured on Davis’s live albums “In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk,” and “Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall.” I decided to write about these albums because they tend to be overlooked in comparison with the more famous groups that Davis led before 1961, and from 1964-68. 

Hank Mobley is most well-known for the many classic hard bop albums he made for Blue Note Records from 1955-1970. While he didn’t get that much recognition during his lifetime, Mobley’s posthumous reputation has soared and he is now seen as one of the key hard bop players of his era. Mobley started out recording with Horace Silver and Art Blakey in the Jazz Messengers in the mid 1950’s. When he left the group to record on his own he made a number of excellent albums for Blue Note. Among his most famous albums are “Peckin’ Time,” “Soul Station,” “Roll Call,” “Workout,” “No Room For Squares,” and “The Turnaround!” Mobley’s playing had an open, clear tone, and he was described by jazz critic Leonard Feather as the “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone,” which meant that his sound was not as heavy as that of Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, but not as light as Stan Getz. Mobley’s sound was always very pretty and melodic. 

Mobley came to Davis during a transition period for the trumpeter. Davis had led a jazz sextet supergroup in 1958 with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb in his band. This was the group that would go on to record “Kind of Blue.” However, by the time of the “Kind of Blue” sessions in March and April of 1959, the group had already broken up, with Evans leaving the band in November, 1958. Wynton Kelly took Evans’s place and plays on “Freddie Freeloader” on “Kind of Blue.” Evans returned for the “Kind of Blue” sessions, but it was clear that he was not going to rejoin the group permanently. Evans, Adderley, and Coltrane all wanted to lead their own groups, and Adderley was the next to leave, in September, 1959. Coltrane stuck with Miles until April of 1960, after finishing a European tour with the group. It was on this tour that Davis bought Coltrane a soprano saxophone, which Coltrane would use to great effect on his recording of “My Favorite Things,” among other songs. According to Davis’s autobiography, Coltrane tried to quit the band before the European tour, and suggested Wayne Shorter as his replacement. But Davis prevailed upon Coltrane to finish the tour before he left. When the tour was over, Davis contacted Shorter about joining his group, but Shorter was already playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Shorter would eventually join Davis’s group in 1964, joining Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams to form Miles’s “Second Classic Quintet.” Sonny Stitt, who played both tenor and alto saxophones, took Coltrane's place. There are some bootleg live recordings of Stitt with Miles, but they never recorded in the studio together. Davis’s autobiography says that Stitt left the group in early 1961, but a timeline of Davis’s groups included in the liner notes of the “Miles Davis and John Coltrane: The Complete Columbia Recordings” box set says that Mobley joined the group on December 26, 1960. 

When Miles Davis entered Columbia’s studios in March, 1961 to record “Someday My Prince Will Come,” his small-group follow up to “Kind of Blue,” his band was Mobley on tenor saxophone, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. The album was recorded over three days. On the first day of sessions, March 7th, the songs “Pfrancing” and “Drad Dog” were recorded. Both tunes were written by Miles. At the next sessions, held on March 20th and 21st, John Coltrane sat in with the band and soloed on “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Teo,” making these the final recordings in his collaboration with Miles Davis. Another Davis original titled “Blues No.2” was also recorded at these sessions, but it wasn’t released until 1979, when it appeared on the “Circle in the Round” compilation album. 

Here are my thoughts on the songs on “Someday My Prince Will Come”:

“Someday My Prince Will Come”: A popular song from the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, “Someday My Prince Will Come” became popular as a jazz tune after Dave Brubeck included it on his 1957 album “Dave Digs Disney,” which was entirely comprised of songs from Disney movies. Miles’s former pianist Bill Evans also included the song on his 1960 album “Portrait in Jazz.” The song begins with Chambers strumming a repeated note on his bass, and Cobb softly tapping a cymbal before Wynton Kelly starts playing some pretty chords. Then Miles comes in with the melody, playing with his Harmon mute, which gave his playing on ballads such a unique tone. Miles solos first, sticking fairly close to the melody line, and then giving way to Mobley. Once Mobley enters, Cobb switches from brushes to sticks, giving the music slightly more drive. Mobley’s solo is gentle and pretty, and Kelly takes the next solo. Then, at about 5:20 into the song, Miles comes back and states the melody again, which might make you think the song is winding down. But it isn’t, as John Coltrane’s unmistakable sound fills the speakers. At times during his solo Coltrane plays a lot of notes, similar to his earlier “sheets of sound” playing style. Coltrane’s solo takes the song to a different level. Miles then comes back and states the theme for a third time. Kelly then solos again briefly, and returns the song to the sound it had at the beginning, with Chambers playing the same repeated note and Cobb tapping a cymbal. Interestingly enough, later in 1961 Wynton Kelly would record his own album titled “Someday My Prince Will Come,” with Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb supporting him. According to Bob Blumenthal’s liner notes for the Miles and Coltrane box set, Coltrane had never played “Prince” before, and was reading the chord changes off a sheet of paper.

“Old Folks”: Not to be confused with the Stephen Foster song “Old Folks at Home,” this song dates from the late 1930’s. But while the lyric is a maudlin tale of an old man, Miles makes the song an expression of yearning through his gorgeous playing. Mobley’s solo is also lovely, as he caresses the ballad for all it’s worth. Kelly sprinkles some lovely trills into his brief solo. 

“Pfrancing”: Finger snaps start this tune off, as Kelly states the brief theme, which is then echoed in a different octave, as though Kelly is answering himself. Davis then plays the theme, and Mobley provides the response. Davis then holds the last note of the phrase for about 10 seconds and exits, allowing Kelly to take a brief bluesy solo. Miles re-enters for his solo, which is full of bluesy smears. Kelly then gets a longer solo, which is somewhat reminiscent of his work on “Freddie Freeloader.” Mobley is in familiar territory here, and he turns in a nice solo. Chambers then gets a bass solo which never bores, and shows why he was one of the greatest bass players of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Kelly then gets a chance to solo again before Miles and Mobley restate the theme. “Pfrancing” was written for Miles’s first wife, Frances Taylor, whose lovely picture adorns the cover of the album. When “Pfrancing” was performed live at the Blackhawk it was retitled “No Blues,” and it remained a constant in Davis’s concert repertoire until the end of the 1960’s. 

“Drad Dog”: I had no idea where the name for this song came from until I read an Ira Gitler piece where he wrote that it’s named after Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson, as “Drad Dog” is Goddard backwards. Ah, it all makes sense now. It’s a slow ballad with Miles’s muted trumpet giving the song a late-night feel. “Drad Dog” is a pretty song, with lovely solos by Davis, Mobley, and Kelly. Wynton Kelly was just smooth as hell. 

“Teo”: This song is named after Davis’s longtime Columbia Records producer Teo Macero, who would later prove to be an important partner during Miles’s electric period as he and Davis edited long jam sessions into albums. I always love it when Davis’s albums featuring him talking after a take-he’s usually saying something to Teo. At the end of “Gingerbread Boy” on “Miles Smiles,” he says “Teo, play that. Teo, Teo, Teo, Teo play that.” I think Davis just really liked the name Teo. Oddly enough, when “Teo” was played live at the Blackhawk in April of 1961, it was retitled “Neo.” “Teo” starts off with only Chambers playing, and then Cobb and Kelly join in, giving the song its Latin feel. Miles comes in and gives the song a mysterious, haunting quality. Miles hits a really high note around the 2:35 mark, and his solo is excellent, changing character several times. Coltrane solos and Mobley lays out. “Teo” is right in Coltrane’s modal wheelhouse, and he unleashes a powerful and yearning solo. “Teo” is a highlight of the album, and a fitting close to the Davis and Coltrane partnership. The liner notes say that a version of “Teo” was attempted with Mobley on tenor, but a full take was never recorded. 

“I Thought About You”: This beautiful ballad was written by Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen, and it has been recorded by many singers and jazz musicians. Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra both included it on their seminal 1956 albums “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” Miles plays the tune with his Harmon mute, and the result is one of his most exquisite ballad performances ever. Mobley contributes a lovely, lightly swinging solo. 

Bonus tracks:

“Blues No. 2”: This song, a Davis original, sees Miles reunited with former drummer Philly Joe Jones, who played in his “First Classic Quintet” from 1955-58 and was replaced by Jimmy Cobb. It’s a straight ahead swinger, with Miles stating the theme right away. You can hear how the band plays a little differently as Jones adds little kickers during Davis’s solo. Jones was one of the hardest swinging drummers of the time, and he gets to play a couple of tasty little solo breaks as he and Miles engage in a back and forth dialogue. Mobley creates a groovy solo, repeating a little phrase several times near the end. Miles then comes back in, playing higher than usual, and Jones gets another little solo. This must have been a fun tune for everyone to jam on.

“Someday My Prince Will Come”: This is an alternate take with only Mobley on tenor sax. The song starts much the same way as the master take, with Chambers repeating a single note before Kelly and Cobb come in. Davis’s solo has some similar ideas as the master take, so it seems clear that he knew what he wanted to do with the song. Like the master take, Cobb switches from brushes to sticks as Mobley takes his solo. The length of this alternate take is about the same length as the master before Coltrane comes in, about 5:30. It’s interesting to hear this alternate take, as it doesn’t quite lift off the same way as the take with Coltrane does. 

 “Someday My Prince Will Come” is an excellent album, full of great playing from all of the contributors, but I feel like it’s one of the few Miles Davis albums that kind of slips through the cracks. It’s one of only two pre-1981 Miles Davis Columbia albums not included in full on a box set. The two Coltrane tracks are on the Miles and Coltrane box set, but the full album isn’t. The other album that doesn’t appear in full on a box set is 1968’s “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” whose tracks are split between the “Miles Davis Quintet 1965-1968” set and “The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions.” That means that you could buy all of the box sets of Davis’s work that Columbia has issued and you would thus own all of the studio albums he recorded for the label from 1955-1975, except for “Someday My Prince Will Come.” It’s something of a neglected stepchild. 

Two of the songs on “Someday My Prince Will Come” entered Davis’s concert repertoire. “Pfrancing,” which became “No Blues,” was played regularly by Davis until at least 1967. “No Blues” is played three times on the “Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Volume 1” 3-CD set, and it even appears once on the “Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Volume 2” concerts from 1969. “I Thought About You” also entered Miles’s songbook, and there are several live versions of the song from 1963-65. “Teo,” also known as “Neo,” doesn’t appear on any live albums after 1961, and neither does “Someday My Prince Will Come.” “Old Folks” and “Drad Dog” never seem to have made it to the concert stage-there aren’t any live recordings of these songs, at least nothing that’s been released officially. 

The cover of “Someday My Prince Will Come” is very striking, as it features a picture of the beautiful Frances Taylor, Miles’s wife at the time. It’s a very sexy album cover, as you can see just a little bit of her strapless dress. Davis had been upset about the original cover of his 1957 album “Miles Ahead,” which featured a white model on a boat. Davis supposedly said to Columbia record producer George Avakian, “Why’d you put that white bitch on there?” Davis writes in his autobiography, “It was on ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ that I started demanding that Columbia use black women on my album covers…I mean, it was my album and I was Frances’s prince, and ‘Pfrancing’ on that album was written for her. Next I got rid of all them stupid liner notes, which I had been trying to do for a long time. See, I never thought there was nothing nobody could say about an album of mine. I just want everyone to listen to the music, and make up their own minds. I never did like no one writing about what I played on an album, trying to explain what I was trying to do. The music speaks for itself.” (Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, p.252) So I realize that Miles Davis probably wouldn’t like my essay which is all about his music, but oh well. Such are the perils of being a critic. 

Hank Mobley had a heavy burden to carry on the album, as to the record-buying public he wasn’t replacing Sonny Stitt, he was replacing John Coltrane. Those are pretty big shoes to fill. While Mobley was a great player, he wasn’t the innovator that Coltrane was. It’s not really fair to compare Mobley to Coltrane, as Coltrane was one of the most influential players in the history of jazz music. Mobley's style was not as radical as Coltrane's. Mobley was a smooth player. I don’t mean that in a bad way, he just didn't have the rough edges that Coltrane did. If Miles wanted another Coltrane in his band, then he would inevitably be disappointed with Mobley. So why did Davis have Coltrane sit in on two of the songs on “Someday”? Was it a kind gesture to an old colleague, or was he already less than satisfied with Mobley’s playing?

Davis makes it clear that he wasn’t working well with Mobley in his autobiography. Davis writes about driving out to San Francisco for the dates at the Blackhawk in April 1961: “…the music was starting to bore me because I didn’t like what Hank Mobley was playing in the band…Playing with Hank just wasn’t fun for me; he didn’t stimulate my imagination.” (Miles: The Autobiography, p.252) This begs the question: why did Miles Davis hire Hank Mobley? Mobley was a part of some important projects with Davis, the first small group album after “Kind of Blue,” Miles's first live recordings to be issued by Columbia, and the Carnegie Hall concert. There must have been a reason Miles hired him, but he doesn't say what it is in his autobiography. To my ears, Mobley’s playing with Davis is not that different from his playing on his own albums of the time. So the question is, if Miles liked Mobley’s solo work, why didn’t he like what Hank was playing in his group? Or, if Miles didn’t care for Mobley’s solo work, why did he hire him? I wonder if Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers recommended Mobley to Davis, as they had worked with Mobley on his two classic 1960 Blue Note albums, “Soul Station” and “Roll Call.” That’s my guess, that Davis needed a tenor saxophone, Kelly and Chambers recommended Mobley, and Mobley was available and said yes. 

In the next post, I’ll take a look at the “In Person: Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk” 4-CD box set.

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