Miles Davis’s Friday and Saturday night performances at the Blackhawk in San Francisco in the spring of 1961 are simply great jazz. Though the group he leads here has not generally received much play because they were a working band and didn’t record anything as groundbreaking as Kind of Blue or the succession of albums that began with the second great quintet in 1964, the audiences at these sets were treated to some top notch jazz.
The rhythm section here, comprised of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb, had played with Davis since Kind of Blue (though Kelly only appears on one track on that album, replaced for the most part by Bill Evans). They were a hard bop rhythm section for the most part—steeped in the blues and in gospel, hard-edged and a bit funky. That keeps things sharp and fresh, even though the songs on these sets are pretty much all standards or favorite Davis compositions like “So What.” This was one of very few periods in which Miles didn’t really appear to be moving toward anything new. Though he continued to work with excellent sidemen like Hank Mobley and George Coleman, he was not composing new music, and the conception of the tunes he played was not much different than it had been when he had originally recorded them. The main thing that happened is that the tempos quickened (sometimes enormously; check out the version of “Walkin’” on Disc One of the Saturday Night performance). In addition, none of his sidemen were composers, as the musicians in his yet-to-be-assembled second great quintet would be. Yet Miles himself was playing very well on these dates, and the band is also in good form, especially Mobley, who has generally been given short shrift, falling as he does between John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter in Miles’s succession of tenor players.
Interestingly, Miles didn’t seem to find Mobley all that inspirational a bandmate. In his autobiography, he says that “…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. This was about the time I started playing real short solos and then leaving the bandstand.” It’s easy to see why Davis wasn’t particularly excited about Mobley’s playing. The tenor man was influenced by Lester Young, and often plays his own version of the long, loping phrases that Young made famous, sometimes seeming to lag behind the beat. Miles probably wasn’t all that happy with the way things were going and made Mobley the scapegoat for what was, compared to what came immediately before and after, a somewhat lackluster period in his career. But what was lackluster for Miles would have been perfection for almost any other performer, and the sets on Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk provide a rare opportunity to just hear Miles and company playing their straight ahead best, without any radically new concept or sound to sell.
Now available in two 2-CD sets or as a complete 4-disc box set, the remastered Blackhawk performances are also restored to their correct order. On the original releases, songs from different sets were reordered to create each release—one culled from Friday night’s performances, the other from Saturday’s. Here listeners can hear the music just as it unfolded in front of the Blackhawk’s audiences on both nights, and it helps to have a more complete picture of the two evenings. A lot of the material on the Friday night discs has been released before, but the new material—“If I Were A Bell,” “Neo,” and “I Thought About You,” are all well worth hearing. The Saturday night performances yield a lot of previously unissued material, including a fantastic “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Walkin’” taken at a breakneck tempo. “Autumn Leaves” given a thorough exploration, including an introduction that explores the song’s thematic material before moving into a statement of the melody. “Two Bass Hit” is also here, as is all of the previously unheard fourth set: “I Thought About You,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise.” Despite his displeasure with Mobley’s performances, Miles gives a solid performance of his own. If Mobley was uninspiring, Davis was still getting his inspiration from somewhere. Though he plays in shorter bursts, his economical statements are the absolute essence of each composition boiled down as succinctly as possible. Miles had already signaled on Kind of Blue that he wanted to move toward material that utilized as few chord changes as possible, and his playing here reflects that idea, eschewing the flurries of notes favored by bebop and relying on simpler statements colored by the blues for emphasis. His band here is very much in the hard bop mode, and that creates tension between the earthier style of the rhythm section and Mobley and Miles’s more esoteric playing. Listen to the performances of “Neo on both nights and you’ll hear echoes of Kind of Blue as well as some hint of the kind of sound Miles was looking for and would eventually find with Hancock, Shorter, Carter, and Williams. Mobley is sometimes lost on this type of number, as his playing tends to be much more interesting given more harmonic structure rather than less.
Still, it would be pointless and uncharitable to dismiss Mobley’s work here simply because he didn’t fit the picture that Miles was developing of where he wanted his next group to go. He plays very well, and much of the material is well suited to his Lester Young-influenced style. In fact, he is a perfect foil for Davis, who responds to the entire group’s laid back swing by playing in a more aggressive manner, as if to compensate for the absence of Coltrane. On Saturday night’s rendition of “On Green Dolphin Street” Miles ends his solo with a very hot flash or notes played in an agitated manner, providing a burst that leads into Mobley’s solo. Mobley doesn’t respond by playing with the same fire, instead uncorking some gorgeous phrases that lead off in their own direction. In a way, it is Davis who is the odd man out in his own band—they seem to be of a single mind and purpose, while Miles exerts a protean effort to move them in a different direction.
So, do you need this complete version of Miles and company’s 1961 performances at the Blackhawk? My answer would be “yes” because like the complete Plugged Nickel box, this set of performances offers an opportunity to hear one of the best working jazz groups of the time playing outside the confines of the recording studio. But whereas the Plugged Nickel recordings are not representative of the second great quintet at its very best, In Person at the Blackhawk is representative of Miles’s transitional quintet at its best. That makes it a formidable performance that needs to be heard, and in its new format, complete and with immensely improved sound quality, it’s a real bargain.