Sadism and Perversity at Work
Miles Davis in Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete

For Miles Davis, conflict was a tool for the manufacture of inspiration. He routinely pitted bandmembers against one another or gave advice in the form of insults or cutting criticism. When John Coltrane told Davis he was having trouble winding down his saxophone solos, the trumpeter’s infamous response was “Try taking the horn out of your mouth.” In the early 1970s, saxophonist Gary Bartz told Miles he didn’t like what keyboardist Keith Jarrett was playing behind his solos. Davis immediately called Jarrett in, privately, and told him Bartz loved his playing, and wanted him to play even more.

In light of his treatment of women and non-bandmembers throughout his life, it’s easy to imagine there was a fair amount of simple sadism and perversity at work.
A charitable observer would probably interpret these episodes, and all the others like them, as Miles’ attempt to get the best out of his players, even if they didn’t understand at the time. But in light of his treatment of women and non-bandmembers throughout his life, it’s easy to imagine there was a fair amount of simple sadism and perversity at work.

In Person Friday And Saturday Nights At The Blackhawk, Complete documents a San Francisco weekend from April 1961 — three sets on Friday, four on Saturday. In the early 1960s, Miles was in musical flux. The band with which he recorded what’s commonly regarded as his greatest album, 1959’s Kind Of Blue, lost its saxophonists — Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley — immediately thereafter. The rhythm section (pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb) remained. For a few months, Sonny Stitt filled the saxophone chair, but he didn’t work out, and in December 1960 he was replaced by Hank Mobley, who’s heard on these four CDs.

Mobley was a hard bop player who’d made his name on Blue Note records, first with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and then as a leader. His musical foil, on each of their albums as well as Blakey’s, was trumpeter Lee Morgan. A brash player with a ferocious command of the horn’s entire range, Morgan was the perfect partner for Mobley. Hard bop’s melodies were rooted in an amped-up blues, and that combination of simplicity and improvisational creativity was a brand of jazz virtually anyone could enjoy. The music achieved a popularity it hadn’t enjoyed since the dawn of the rock ‘n’ roll era, particularly among black audiences.

With Mobley on board, Miles’ music moved in the direction of hard bop. His live repertoire hadn’t changed much — standards like “All Of You,” “If I Were A Bell,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” still shared time with bop chestnuts like Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” and Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Some tunes from Davis’ one album with Mobley, Someday My Prince Will Come, also made the live set, including the title track and “Neo.” But the way all this material was played changed quite a bit.

When the front line was Davis and Coltrane, the rhythm section had swung hard but stretched out quite a bit, too. Even in the late 1950s, the saxophonist was already spinning long, elaborate solos which allowed the bassist and drummer, in particular, to explore their instruments in some depth as well. When Miles was soloing, though, they shifted gears to accompany his darting, subtle style. In this way, the band became an intricate and highly nuanced rhythm machine, able to handle just about anything, and forcing the audience to pay close attention to the sudden changes in direction.

With Mobley on board, though, the blues became the dominant mode, which created a kind of flattened groove. The band swung just as forcefully as ever, possibly even more than before, but Mobley was a down-the-middle player, uninterested in the wild flights of fancy favored by Coltrane. He played to the audience — never crass but never alienating in the way some of his predecessor’s more introspective journeys could be.

This straightahead, hard bop approach worked beautifully on Miles’ bluesier tunes like “Walkin’” and the somewhat ironically titled “No Blues.” But on “So What,” the piece that opened Kind Of Blue and brought the modal style of jazz to public attention, it didn’t work nearly as well. The track is taken extremely fast, nearly double the pace of the studio version, and much of the melodic subtlety is gone from it, lost in pursuit of a simplistic, herky-jerky swing.

But that’s only one track out of 29. The vast majority of music on these four CDs is bluesy swing that almost any jazz fan, new or old, can enjoy. In his autobiography, Miles said that he was dissatisfied with this band the whole time Mobley was his front-line partner because the saxophonist didn’t challenge him. That may well be true. But challenge isn’t everything. Miles may well have believed that the greatest creativity came out of conflict, but he was wrong, at least in this case. The Blackhawk recordings show that just playing good music, with an eye toward pleasing the audience, can be more than enough.