Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Music of Miles Davis and Hank Mobley, Part 2: "In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk" (1961)

Cover for the 4-CD box set of the complete concerts at the Blackhawk. That's Miles Davis's wife Frances on the left.

Amazing picture of the Blackhawk jazz club in April, 1961. It's a parking lot now.

The really cool cover for the 1988 CD reissue of "Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk."

Miles Davis at the Blackhawk, 1961.
In re-listening to some of my Miles Davis albums, I decided that I wanted to write about his 1961 group that included the great tenor sax player Hank Mobley. In my last post I reviewed Miles Davis’s only studio sessions with Hank Mobley, which resulted in Davis’s 1961 album “Someday My Prince Will Come.” In this post I’ll take a look at Davis’s second project with Hank Mobley, the live albums “In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk.” These were Davis’s first live albums to be released by Columbia. His 1958 sextet had also been recorded live, but those performances weren’t issued until 1963 and 1973. “In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk” was expanded in 2003 to a 4-CD set including all of the music that was taped by Columbia on April 21st and 22nd, 1961. It’s a terrific set and I would recommend it to any fan of Davis’s work. Davis’s rhythm section was one of the greatest in all of jazz history. Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb could cook, and there’s ample proof of that on these albums.

The Blackhawk was a famous jazz club in San Francisco, and although it was only open from 1949 to 1963, many of the most famous names in jazz played there in the 1950’s. California native Dave Brubeck was a Blackhawk regular, and Cal Tjader, Thelonious Monk, and Ahmad Jamal all recorded live albums there. Ralph J. Gleason’s wonderful liner notes to “At the Blackhawk” give us a good sense of what the scene at the Blackhawk was like. 

Rather than go through all of the songs the group played one by one, I’ll give an overview of each set.

Friday night, Set 1:
The band is exuberant, outgoing, expressive, hard-driving, and swinging. There’s great playing by all members, and this set shows what a tight band they were. This version of Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” makes the original sound stately by comparison. There’s also a 17-minute version of “No Blues,” aka “Pfrancing,” which is the longest song the group played either night. Miles’s solo on “No Blues” is more punchy and extroverted than usual. There’s also a lovely bowed bass solo by Paul Chambers. 

Friday night, Set 2:
This was the longest set played either night. I love the way Miles plays on “Neo.” The Latin feel of the song seems to bring out different shades of his playing. He should have kept “Neo” in his concert repertoire. A lovely version of “I Thought About You” is the first ballad of the evening, and features an excellent Miles solo. “Walkin’” swings hard, and Mobley does great work on this tune, which also features another nice arco bass solo by Chambers. “Love, I’ve Found You” is performed by Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb as a trio. 

Friday night, Set 3:
A slightly more laid back set, featuring one of my favorite Miles Davis ballads, “Fran Dance.” On “If I Were a Bell” Kelly plays the same “Big Ben” intro from Davis’s 1956 version of the song with Red Garland on piano. Both “On Green Dolphin Street” and “If I Were a Bell” feature outstanding work from Wynton Kelly. Kelly was an excellent pianist who always sounded effortless and graceful no matter if he was creating beautiful solos or comping behind Miles or Mobley. 

Saturday night, Set 1:
A short set, but it features an excellent solo by Hank Mobley on “If I Were a Bell,” and a terrific version of “So What” that is played at a much faster tempo than the studio version. Miles’s solo on “So What” is blazing. 

Saturday night, Set 2:
As on Friday night, those lucky patrons who saw the second set got to hear a lot of music. There are excellent versions of “On Green Dolphin Street,” which has a great bass solo from Paul Chambers, and a terrific solo from Miles on “Walkin’” where he holds some really long notes. There’s also a slightly sloppy version of “Round Midnight.” 

Saturday night, Set 3:
The third set features a really nice version of “Autumn Leaves,” which is incomplete because the tapes weren’t rolling when Miles and the group took the stage, so the beginning of the song is missing. There’s another great version of “Neo,” featuring two solos from Miles, and some great Wynton Kelly piano playing on “Bye Bye (Theme)” and “Love, I’ve Found You.”

Saturday night, Set 4:
The evening comes to a close with the lovely ballad “I Thought About You,” a great version of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and the trio of Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb playing “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise.” “Prince” and “Softly” both feature excellent playing from Kelly.
“In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk” shows a great band at the peak of their powers. Even though Miles wasn’t digging what Hank Mobley was playing, you can’t tell from these recordings. Both Davis and Mobley offer excellent solos throughout the two nights captured on disc. And Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb display their tightness after two years of playing together. 

By 1961, Davis’s on stage behavior rankled some jazz purists. Miles was famous for playing with his back to the audience, for leaving the bandstand when his other musicians were soloing, and for never introducing songs or making small talk. He was there to play, and that’s all you were going to get. Davis tells a story in his autobiography about his mother talking to him around this time about his on stage behavior.

“My mother said to me, ‘Miles, you could at least smile for the audience when they’re clapping so hard for you. They’re clapping because they love you, love what you are playing because it’s beautiful.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to be, an Uncle Tom?’ She looked at me real hard for a minute and then she said, ‘If I ever hear about you tomming, I’ll come and kill you myself.’” (Miles, p.255) 

That anecdote shows where some of Miles’s pride came from. While now Miles’s behavior on stage wouldn’t be much remarked upon, at the time I think some people thought that he should be like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, two famously outgoing African-American jazz trumpeters. But that simply wasn’t Miles’s style. I don’t think that he ever thought he was being rude on stage, I think he was just being himself. 

Davis’s next album was recorded live at Carnegie Hall in May, just a month after the Blackhawk sets. The Carnegie Hall concert would pair him with the Gil Evans Orchestra, and would mark the first time he had ever recorded live with an orchestra. It would prove to be Mobley’s final recording with Davis, and I’ll take a closer look at the Carnegie Hall concert in my next post.

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