CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Chronology: Wynton Kelly Trio at the Left Bank with Three Star Tenor Saxophonists

A look back at a series of late-‘60s Baltimore gigs where George Coleman, Joe Henderson, and Hank Mobley joined the pianist led group

Wynton Kelly (foreground) and Hank Mobley
Wynton Kelly (foreground) and Hank Mobley at the recording session for Mobley’s Another Workout, December 1961. (Photo: rancis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

The rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb enjoyed a celebrated 1959-1962 tenure with Miles Davis, appearing on the studio recordings Kind of Blue and Someday My Prince Will Come, plus a bevy of live recordings at Carnegie Hall, the Blackhawk, and all over Europe. This unit was also heard on other great albums of that era by John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wayne Shorter, Booker Little, Benny Golson, Art Pepper, Frank Strozier, Sonny Red, and Chambers himself. After the Miles Davis years they became a working trio on their own or in tandem with Wes Montgomery; the 1965 Kelly/Montgomery live set Smokin’ at the Half Note is famous. 

Of their own albums led by the pianist, Kelly Blue might be definitive. However, every single note this trio ever played connected the dots between bebop (Kelly apprenticed with Dizzy Gillespie), the popular song (together, Kelly and Cobb did two years with Dinah Washington), and the freshest currents of Miles-driven modern jazz. Throughout, their bedrock was the blues.  

By the end of the ’60s, this magnificent story was drawing to a close. Chambers died in the earliest days of 1969 and Kelly passed on in April 1971. Fortunately, posterity is graced with three late tapes of live performances at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, each featuring a different guest tenor saxophonist. Chambers is present for the April 1968 Joe Henderson set (released in 1994 by Verve under the title Four!), while excellent bassists sub on the other two: Cecil McBee sits in for the November 1967 Hank Mobley gig, while Ron McClure appears with George Coleman in September 1968. (These two dates, both titled Live at the Left Bank Jazz Society, were issued in 2000 by the Spanish label Fresh Sound.)

McClure had already replaced the ailing Chambers in the working quartet with Wes Montgomery for a nine-week tour and appeared on the trio’s 1966 studio record Full View. “Playing with Wynton was like being baptized every night,” McClure remembers. “Nobody swung more than Wynton Kelly! They treated me like a son and the music was absolutely joyous. George Coleman played with Wynton’s trio at the Left Bank Jazz Society on a Sunday afternoon in Baltimore. I’d just returned from Prague with a new bass I’d bought from Miroslav Vitous’ father, and was playing it for the first time on that gig. Jimmy Cobb played especially amazing on this record. Chick Corea and Dave Holland were sitting in the front row.”

John Coltrane had died in July 1967 and his presence looms over all three performances. Coleman, Henderson, and Mobley take epic solos rivaling Trane in length and depth. Mobley is perhaps a bit past his prime, but he’s still got it, and the audience cheers him on after particularly swinging phrases. Coleman is right in there, perfect, a virtuoso in flawless command of the language.

The music takes a hard turn toward abstraction with the Henderson set, which is now prized by aficionados as one of the great documents of JoHen in furious live action. Trane’s increasingly exploratory language had almost wrong-footed the great rhythm section on the last tour with Miles Davis (Live in Stockholm is a good example), and a similar kind of tension can be heard with Henderson at the Left Bank, especially when Kelly lays out for minutes on end as the saxophonist goes further into the stratosphere. Eventually Kelly retakes control with a heartfelt, stunning trio rendition of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” perhaps indicating to his unruly young tenor that “we need this kind of order in our music as well.” It was a majority-black audience at the Left Bank, and they applaud Kelly as a visiting high dignitary from a most respected realm.

Jazz was still a community music, but circumstances were changing fast and it was rapidly losing its hold on a general market. Kelly attempted to stem the tide by including recent hit songs in his repertoire. All three Baltimore gigs include the Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner song “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” from the 1965 musical of the same name. Kelly sets it up, declaiming the melody with love, before the tenors roar in and devour the changes. All three bassists play great but the lo-fi recording doesn’t privilege their contribution; rather, these live sets are peak examples of the driving cymbal beat of Jimmy Cobb, who also takes some of the longest and most virtuosic solos in his discography. It’s all as good as it gets, really. If you love this kind of music, you gotta have all three.

FURTHER LISTENING

The Wynton Kelly Trio’s Left Bank gigs had little to no rehearsal. Consult the following for more on the topic of “jam session tenor saxophone”:

Hank Mobley is heard to wonderful and unusually exploratory effect on Monday Nights at Birdland with Billy Root and Ray Bryant (originally recorded in 1958 and ’59, reissued in 2009 by Fresh Sound).

George Coleman is one guy you never want to have show up in a “take no prisoners” mood. On Blues Inside Out (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz House, 1996), some of London’s best like Peter King and Julian Joseph almost hold their own against Coleman’s incandescent bebop at Ronnie Scott’s.

Joe Henderson’s Live in Japan (Milestone, 1971) isn’t quite a jam session, but it’s still a casual—and sensational—live date. Keyboardist Hideo Ichikawa leads a local rhythm section at the Junk Club as JoHen lays down the law. 

Originally Published
Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.