Small Club Miles Davis Engagement Makes For Engaging Vinyl Reissue
What's exceptional about this recording and the performances captured? And what's ridiculous about the packaging? First of all, this set, from April 21st and 22nd 1961 was Davis' first live in a small club recording. Because the two night stand was planned as a live recording date, the engineers were ready and sound is as close to being in a live jazz club as a recording can get—or second to being as close after the aforementioned Bill Evans LPs. Secondly, the Blackhawk was about as venerated a jazz club as can be used as a recording venue. Like the Village Vanguard, the club drips with atmosphere and probably drips literally for all I know. Certainly many attendees suffered post nasal drip, but that's another story.
Adding luster is the combo itself. This is only a few years after Kind of Blue after all, so it's Miles, Hank Mobley on tenor sax, and the rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. In other words, it's basically driven by the KOB rhythm section (though Wynton was only on one track and Bill Evans was on the rest).
So Cannonball and Coltrane were by this time gone, and while this stripped down group featuring Hank Mobley didn't last long, it was a really hard driving ensemble, especially since Coltrane and Adderley weren't competing with each other and doing completely different things (Cannon doing his pop blues/gospel/be-bop thing, Coltrane experimenting with the music's harmonic structure) and Mobley was less of a solo improvisational player and more of a team player. That gave this combo a solid, driving thrust that comes through on every track. No wonder this group was apparently among Miles' most popular club ensembles.
What's ridiculous is that Columbia did not list the group members on the jacket and in 1961 getting that information was not exactly easy. But that's a minor quibble. A bigger issue is that these two sides hardly represent the entire weekend's performances, but worse is that some tunes have been edited down to fit onto two LPs. That's just something you have to deal with considering that the entire weekend—every set and full, unedited performances—were issued on CD in 2003 remixed from the original three track tapes.
This set was originally issued in 1961 as two separate stereo albums (CS8469 and CS8470) as well as in mono. Some time later, Columbia issued the "twofer" (C 2S 820), which is the version IMPEX has chosen to reissue using the original "6 eye" Columbia labels and the 820 gatefold packaging.
Diehard Davis fans might wish to consider finding Mosaic's The Complete Blackhawk Sessions (MQ 6-220) though it's out of print and will probably be expensive and the new mix, while pretty good, has an opacity that moves you from "live at the club" to a merely damn good club recording. The drum kit in particular lacks the original's hyper-reality.
However, if you're interested in a musically filling "tasting menu" of Miles at The Blackhawk with this particular grouping, this would be it. Other than the "live at Carnegie Hall" mono LP issued from a board mix and the studio album Some Day My Prince Will Come (reissued as a double 45rpm set by Analogue Productions) this is the only other recording made by this particular group.
They perform tunes mostly familiar to any Miles fan: on Volume 1 "Walkin'", "Bye Bye Blackbird," "All of You," "No Blues," "Bye Bye" and "Love I've Found You," and on Volume II, "Well You Needn't," "Fran Dance," "So What," Sonny's "Oleo," "If I Were a Bell," and "Neo". All done straight ahead, heavy on the rhythmic thrust and no back and forth on sax. If Mobley was less fiery than Coltrane and less "down home" than Cannonball, he brought a middle of the road sensibility to the team that may have been less than inspiring to Miles, but pleased the live audiences.
I compared this reissue to a 1C first pressing and found the sound to be generally comparable though there definitely was a bit more air and club "atmosphere" on the original pressing—not surprising since the tape has been sitting around for fifty plus years. But it was very, very close, with Kevin Gray ("Dr. Groove") and his IMPEX partner here Robert Pincus ("Mr. Record") going for a somewhat sweeter sound than what's on the original. So Miles' horn doesn't quite have the air and "bite" found on the original but it's so good that unless you make a direct comparison with an original pressing you'll not feel as if you're missing anything. In fact, it could be argued that Gray gets a bit more pleasing metal from the cymbals. If your system is capable, Davis should appear holographically between your speakers, tightly focused and three dimensional.
I also have on hand a "twofer" pressing on the red label with white "360 Sound" lettering around the bottom and the sonic degradation that occurred in Columbia's mastering chain (or because of who was operating the lathe at the time) was radical. That twofer was very opaque and distant sounding and was devoid of any of the qualities that make the original, this reissue and the Mosaic box such engaging listening.
In other words, unless you have the originals, this is a superb sounding reissue that every Miles fan should own. It's as close to hearing Miles Davis play live in a small club as you're ever going to hear.
BTW: if you run across a copy of Jazz at the Plaza—The MIles Davis Sextet Vol. 1 (Columbia C 32470) grab it! It's a 1973 first issue of a private performance Davis gave for Columbia Records executives in the Plaza Hotel's Edwardian Room back in 1958. In other words it's Miles' Kind of Blue group recorded live. It wasn't meant as a recording session and was captured just for the memories but back then it was more difficult than easy to make a bad recording.