Miles Davis

In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete

by Robert R. Calder

11 August 2003


Smiles Live

Sony has so vast a catalogue under the name of this man, a name dropped by pseuds but rarely my own first listening choice, I can only hesitate on the verge of an unqualified recommendation; and then hope it will be taken duly seriously. As all the CDs accompanying printed apparatus insists, Ralph Gleason’s reprinted liner notes and Eddie Henderson’s uncommonly interesting memoirs and commentary, this is a quite singular pair of two-hour recordings of a Miles Davis ensemble, independent of some obvious neuroses which stalked the man through the years he was famous.

I’ve never found out how far he did wind up repeating himself, playing the miked purple trumpet in front of or somewhere among those to me never terribly congenial ensembles he led when fit—or almost fit enough—at the end of everything else he’d done. There had for ages been some horror (no weaker word fits) of repeating himself, of being in any way neither fashionable nor at the forefront, whether among intelligent auditors or to a general public liable to be un- or more likely mis-informed and unduly impressed by trendy trappings. Davis in a profound sense repeated the old Jelly Roll story, and if he wasn’t exactly the boaster who set himself future standards to live up to, certainly he was musically driven by some kind of superego—through the metamorphoses his bands and music underwent. Of course he had the wherewithal of talent as well as genius to fulfil more than an imaginable number of the tyrannous challenges SuperMiles seemed continually to be setting the human being and musician. But was he ever at home?

cover art

Miles Davis

In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete

US: 3 Jun 2003
UK: Available as import

One is led to believe that he felt and was at home on very few gigs, and mostly at San Francisco’s Black Hawk. On the two evenings out of many when he was recorded there—Friday April 21st and Saturday April 22nd 1961—something unique was created. I do believe that. A minor flaw of co-ordination in the otherwise exemplary production has left me uncertain whether we have here every note played for the audience from the tiny bandstand, or so nearly every note as to make no difference. The tapes made were considered as performances of items of repertoire, and choices were made sufficient to fill albums of standard size if well above any average standard of quality. The results have been well known to many for a long time.

Now, two different performances are available: I don’t mean, for instance, two new performances each of one item from the Mile Davis repertoire, I mean two performances each consisting of a string of (in the other sense) performances of items from the Davis bag of the time. With less processing and indeed no need to flip to the other side of a disc when the band would still be on the stand and might already have struck up the item following what you just heard, here are two evenings restored as complete performances. There was enough fresh taped material to have filled both sides of another LP disc quite well. The reasons why this disc was never compiled (other than by a pirate quite likely obsessed by the music) include the obvious ones of repetition of repertoire and the slightly more obscure one that some choices of repertoire are at first sight a shade odd. Only: this is one of the least odd or eccentric collections of music I’ve encountered, and among the most refreshingly free of predictables.

Lucky you if you’ve the time and money to overlay an existing Davis collection with unissued items combined among ones several times out already, and to listen and re-listen to the lot. You can buy a box of four CDs, or choose between respectively Friday’s and Saturday night’s two-hour gig. If you do the latter, Saturday maybe wins, for its nine unissued performances. But there’s the earliest track of all to bear in mind, Friday’s “Oleo” with its near perfection in demonstrating how wonderfully this quintet organises, plays as a trio or quartet, or indeed a chamber ensemble playing in relation to the soloist in a concerto.

The never issued LP is by and large Saturday and is rounded off without Davis, who throughout the residence reported but only two nights recorded tended to exhaust what he had to say before the end of the evening. He left things to Wynton Kelly’s piano, the brilliant drumming of Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers’s bass-playing, on his 26th birthday that Saturday (he died aged only 34). Those liable to be alarmed by Davis’s absence might ask themselves why first of all they had wanted him. It wasn’t for the number of notes he played. There is an anecdote, which I believe reliable, that on one of Davis’s later gigs with a band of rock musicians mostly unaware of the Black Hawk repertoire or even how to play it, the trumpeter decided to try something from that bag. Above all, he had forgotten how exhausting it could be, how enormous the demands on the spirit.

The second half of the Saturday gig begins with a previously unissued “Autumn Leaves” characteristic of a great deal of the music on all four CDs. The tune’s a lovely old auntie, and well deserves to be taken out for an excursion (the musical account of which takes nearly 12 minutes) very remarkably on a beautiful Spring day. The transformation is amazing, sounding not eccentric but almost impossible in its achievement and beauty.

The following “Neo” (a theme elsewhere and at other times called “Teo”) was taken for issuing in preference to Friday’s, and rightly enough. The pauses, the bendings and extendings of notes, the expressive wailings prefigure some of the wilder avant-garde of years to come, what Johnny Griffin well described as “taking it out on the music”. Davis does not take it out on the music, he is not loud or raucous and he integrates what is really confessional expression within a classical context. This is a kind of triumph over pain, and with the Kelly-Chambers-Cobb trio more like a Gil Evans ensemble than any mere rhythm section. Hank Mobley was a towering player, with an expressive range incorporating pre-bop Coleman Hawkins, and Stan Getz and Lee Konitz or Warne Marsh, and as far ahead as anything then, viz. Coltrane. The stunning fact is that when he is the hornman, time is time and the quartet plays close together, but when Davis is the solo horn, the overall texture loosens with no loss of pulse or swing, and time spreads. There is room for Davis’s even more to happen.

I love the following “Two Bass Hit”, a theme represented this once on the two nights and based very plainly on its history with Dizzy Gillespie big bands. There is nothing clever or jokey, wit and intelligence are one. After an ensemble introduction which reduces only the number of musicians playing (only five?), Mobley roars off like any big band tenor star, Cobb driving as if some Herman herd could come in any minute. In comes Davis, with a sort of dirty playing, using a prolific variety of undertones and overtones as if there were at times three trumpets. There’s even a rapid-fire run in Gillespie style, and a succession of what seem like afterthoughts turns into another solo, through the closing theme of “Bye Bye”—which has generated such tension that the half-hour slot needs Kelly to play a brief unaccompanied “Love, I’ve Found You” before the stand has come near enough the ground again to let the band step off for a breath.

“I Thought about You” opens the final half-hour with Davis creating more time within the pulse and swing for his statement, set off by Mobley’s tenderness in a substantial solo. Such themes as “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, which follows, were Davis’s means of extending expressive range, important beside lessons of method worked out by Charlie Parker and George Russell. Some of Davis’s pauses last for longer than a chorus, Kelly is all the more notable for a freedom from diffidence. Why shouldn’t Davis have walked off the stand after solos and when the other men were playing, he was the absolute boss who trusted the music, and his musicians. There is a continuous excitement as Kelly plays in a way suggesting he’s any moment now going to take over. Mobley in fact does, harmonically more in Hawkins mode, and then the Kelly solo turns out to be the challenge met by Davis’s brief re-entry, leaving Kelly not to solo but wind things down. He ends the set with a trio performance of “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise”, with Chambers at times massive.

I could go on about the unissued Saturday performance of “Walkin’”, where instead of the issued Friday version’s hints there’s an incorporation of full-blown mama’s little baby boogie figures in Davis’s solo, stylistically as integrated as a folk tune in Haydn. And Paul Chambers having picked up his bow has performed delightful homage to Slam Stewart. All human jazz is there.

There’s no avoiding the issued “So What” with its first set anticipation of the Autumn to Spring transformation which happened a little while later. “So What” is recast first of all by Chambers playing the thematic figure as a rhythmic four note pattern with the intervening notes reduced to linking grace-notes. The pace is upped in comparison to the classic performance whose Davis solo George Russell later transcribed for ensemble in his own performances: upped, but as ever subtly. There is a relaxation which brings to mind reports of how at home Davis was in the shabby crowded Black Hawk, amid an audience, including juveniles and cut-price entry customers, with whom he felt and exercised an exceptional rapport. They all deserved this, and I’d be a boor not to commend others to feel equally and duly grateful for such music, for so much.

Topics: miles davis
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