Miles Davis: In Person Friday Night at the Blackhawk, Complete

Critical opinion will probably always be divided on such aspects of Miles Davis’ career as his early work with Charlie Parker, the collaborations with Gil Evans and his jazz-rock periods. But there’s little controversy about other areas; almost everyone these days agrees about the greatness of the groups that featured John Coltrane and the quintet that featured Wayne Shorter, and the relative drop-off during the intervening tenures of tenor saxophonists Hank Mobley and George Coleman. But the release of the complete recordings made in 1961 by the quintet with Mobley at the Blackhawk in San Francisco affords the opportunity to reexamine and, perhaps, reassess this edition of the group.

There are three points that keep coming up when listening to this music with an ear toward evaluating its relative worth in the Davis canon. The first is that this was a fascinating period for the leader, whose solo style was in the process of redefinition. The second concerns the contributions of Mobley. The last is that Miles is so spectacular that it would be ridiculous to overlook these recordings even if Boots Randolph was sharing the front line.

Mobley, of course, doesn’t deserve any such implied dismissal, yet the reaction of many critics and fans at the time of the original records was to find him guilty of the crime of not being John Coltrane and sentence him to the underappreciation that plagued him for the rest of his days. The unfairness of this was monumental but probably inevitable. Davis had by this time gone pretty far along a path that led the improviser out of any reliance on the formulae of hard-bop soloing, while Mobley was completely at home with the prevailing style. Moreover, although Davis was becoming ever more adventurous in terms of phrasing and harmonic thinking vis-a-vis his solo lines, his preference was for simple harmonic frameworks that gave him lots of space to move around in.

Mobley’s own work during this time was more interesting when he used more challenging structures, and it’s remarkable that Davis didn’t utilize his frontline partner’s compositional skills in this group (in striking contrast to Shorter, who would become a virtual coleader within a few years). Not that Mobley is off his form. He seems to have taken the challenge of replacing the irreplaceable seriously, and he works hard to try to make us forget Trane on tracks like “Neo” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” and turns in more than a few solos that are excellent by any standard (e.g. “Walkin'” on the Friday set). But he is hampered by a rhythm section that was so used to pushing the limits behind superhuman soloists that Mobley sometimes sounds like an unintentional straightman. There are also moments when his rhythmic concept seems at odds with that of Jimmy Cobb. In sum, it does seem true that Mobley is not a perfect fit in this band, but it’s not as if he isn’t awfully good and, if one must really attach blame because of this, it can certainly be shared all around.

For some, an evaluation of this music will depend less on Mobley than on pianist Wynton Kelly. It may seem sacrilegious to mention the fact in an era when Bill Evans is widely regarded as one of the most significant figures in jazz history, but there are still many people who prefer Kelly’s work. Those who do can only love Kelly’s work here; his solos are full of depth and invention, he swings like few other modernists and, whether he’s laying out a simple soulful groove or ad-libbing involved counterpoint lines, his accompaniment is fantastic.

Finally, though, one comes back to the leader. Miles played so well on these two nights that reservations about anything are insignificant. I do suspect that this group will continue to be seen as an interim arrangement, and comparisons with the stunning recordings made in Stockholm and Copenhagen when Coltrane rejoined the group for a brief tour are shattering. But the Blackhawk sessions contain too much great jazz to be dismissed lightly, and the unreleased material-about 20 percent of the Friday Night music and a solid half of the Saturday Night disc-is every bit as good as the familiar stuff. Eddie Henderson has also contributed nice liner notes that are full of personal reminiscences.

The time will come when there won’t be any more from Miles’ earlier periods that we haven’t heard. In the meantime, nobody who’s deep into modern jazz will be able to resist these sets for very long.