Miles: Spring 1961

A holding pattern for Davis. When the dust settled from the groups of the late 1950s, Miles was left with a journeyman quintet that included Hank Mobley (tenor sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (still on bass), and Jimmy Cobb (still on drums).

Someday My Prince Will Come
Mar. 1961 / Columbia

Solid work from the quintet of Davis, Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, with special guest John Coltrane on two tracks and Philly Joe Jones on the bonus cut “Blues No. 2”. These two returning alumni stand out in their cameos, while the regular group gives the album an easygoing feel. Mobley’s round tone and laid-back phrasing works well here, especially on the ballad “Old Folks”, while Wynton Kelly is serviceable in support. Chambers and Cobb strike polite grooves, and Miles delivers some of his best playing on record. In fact, half the appeal of this album is to hear Miles in great form. The other half has to do with the very approachable material, like the theatrical arrangement of the title tune, the call and response blues “Pfrancing”, and the intimacy of “Old Folks”, where one can even hear the creak of Miles’ chair in the studio. The icy, succinct “I Thought About You” would become a live staple. If the beginner enjoys Kind of Blue, this is the place to go next, as it features similarly stylized playing and some classic tunes to boot.

The intriguing ballad “Drad Dog” (Goddard backwards?) doesn’t really say much but has a cool unpredictability. Coltrane appears on “Teo”, a 6/8 dark modal piece that has the sort of vibe he was getting into on his own, albeit with a group that handled these elastic grooves much better. This rhythm trio sounds robotic in comparison, and “Teo” limps along without being as captivating as it ought to be, altough it reinforces Miles’ interest in modal forms, at least. Coltrane also stars on the title track’s master take, which builds from light pulses into an exquisite waltz. It has old times sake written all over it, despite its magnificence. Overall, Miles rests on his laurels here, not fully moving ahead on the modal business, nor running a group with any adventurous leanings, but providing small hints of both. Think of this album as a poised portrait, the leader all handsome-like.

In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk - Complete
Apr. 1961 / Columbia

A full restoration of two live nights in San Fran. The 2003 box restores solos excised from the original LP issues, adds extra tracks, documents the sets across four discs, and gives you all you’d want to know about this quintet on the job. The two volumes are also available individually, and I think Saturday night is the more desirable of the two. The best bit from Friday is a burning “Walkin”, of which Saturday has a good take as well. If this lineup has a legacy, it’s as the Band That Played “Walkin” Real Good. The sonics are acceptable but imperfect - the drums sound thin and Paul Chambers is undermixed. The horns register well, probably the only thing that mattered to the engineers at the time.

The music puts Miles on a stylistic plateau, surveying past favorites (“Bye Bye Blackbird”, “If I Were a Bell”) and recent works (“So What”, “Neo” aka “Teo”) with perfunctory elegance. All of his playing hallmarks are present: held tones, a dramatic sense of line, patented blues licks, and lacy, muted ballad readings that mesmerize. Miles is the most compelling performer on this stage, which, mind the blasphemy, is rather rare. He was only ever as adventurous as his sidemen at any given time, and this quintet was hardly going to push him into something new. Mobley is a step or three down from Coltrane, and his tenor style doesn’t contrast Miles’ trumpet very much, something other MD quintets relied upon. Hank does a good job, but it’s standard issue soloing. Wynton Kelly is like a play-along backing track, so square are his solos. I don’t get his appeal; he sounds so pedestrian, like a pickup pianist who’s been told to feed chords and stay out of the way. Chambers and Cobb are hard to fault - and hard to fully hear on these discs, especially Chambers.

This group is touted as Miles’ most swinging, but previous and future quintets disprove that quickly. Not to hammer at the boys, but I don’t listen to the Blackhawk tapes and think that the rhythm section has any monopoly on groove. In fact, they can be rather primitive (or at least obvious) about stating the beat. The phoned-in tenor and piano solos on Friday’s “All of You” are over a swing that would send a cup of coffee napping.

Anyway, Saturday night is better overall, notwithstanding a torpid “’Round Midnight”. In the other Monk, “Well You Needn’t”, Miles teases the chords apart in a way no one else would think to. “So What” snaps at a comfortable medium tempo where even Kelly types some catchy phrases. “On Green Dolphin Street” is fine whenever Davis is playing, routine when he isn’t. (Which is what I’m saying about this band.) “Neo” goes to a special place the studio version doesn’t - despite the rhythm still being a little stiff, the mode changes are handled more dramatically, and this has everything to do with Miles’ understanding of the piece and the way he signals his troops.

All the betters and worses of this collection are relative to the band’s limited scope. It’s decent jazz, but in the bigger picture, the Blackhawk material keeps Miles in the same place he had already been for the past few years, minus a few sparks. Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland had a special way of swinging and accompanying that Cobb and Kelly don’t. It’s a second chair band. Yet they somehow managed to make a very fine studio album with Someday My Prince Will Come, the more essential souvenir from this part of Miles’ career.

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