Long disparaged (by, among others, Miles himself) as an uninspired, "transitional" work, At the Blackhawk is long overdue for reappraisal. Miles's first official live recording, it was taped on April 21-22, 1961, when he was just a few weeks shy of his thirty-fifth birthday. Like many a historical text before it, the record Columbia released that year was left full of lacunae and inconsistencies. Different release versions featured different songs; bootlegs circulated with incorrect titles; completist collectors were obliged to make do with Japanese liner notes. Now, after more than forty years, it is finally possible to hear all the music played on those two spring nights, spread over four ear-opening CDs.
The perfectionist Miles had thus far resisted making a club recording, but he was open to trying new things, since he was nearing the end of one of the most creative periods of his career. Miles had recently terminated an extraordinary but often troubled working relationship with John Coltrane. Trane was initially replaced by Sonny Stitt, a contemporary of Charlie Parker. But Stitt probably sounded like too much of a throwback for Miles, who soon replaced him with funky hard-bop tenor Hank Mobley. Despite an impressive pedigree of Blue Note releases, and despite the obvious attraction to Miles of a terser improvisor than Coltrane, whose solos could last close to an hour, Mobley seemed an improbable choice.
It was, however, consistent with other changes in the band, and with the same pattern of changes one sees in the late 1960s. Quite simply, Miles was looking for a "blacker" sound, for a less self-conscious and virtuosic approach than Coltrane's. This explains his attraction later to Michael Henderson and Steve Grossman, both relatively raw teenagers. Mobley was far from that--in 1961, he was 31 and with a sequence of Blue Note and Savoy discs already to his credit. Yet he was deeply rooted in the blues and temperamentally averse to using ten notes when one would do. In his memoir, written with Quincy Troupe, Miles complained, "Playing with Hank just wasn't fun for me; he didn't stimulate my imagination." Maybe so--but the evidence on record suggests otherwise.
Miles had also recently replaced his pianist, Bill Evans, with the 30-year-old Jamaican-born Wynton Kelly, a rhythmic, blues-based player whose work contrasted sharply with Evans's Debussian lyricism and who could be expected to fit in with Mobley's curiously hybrid tough-tender sound. The other members of the rhythm section--bassist Paul Chambers and the redoubtable Jimmy Cobb--had played on Kind of Blue, Miles's 1959 masterwork. Even so, the overall sound of the group had changed significantly, and in a way that challenges the consensus view of Miles's development in the 1960s.
As a document, the At the Blackhawk boxed set is clearly a different animal from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. The latter is a tissue of studio takes, music made with a certain sense of history being unmade, not only in the fact that we perceive it running through the projector backward--finished artifact first, raw components afterward--but also because Miles was deeply concerned with how history had dealt with a black hero like Johnson. There was no such hidden drama in 1961, no program to be followed and no effort to attract a new audience. The Blackhawk material is the record of a club engagement, offering, or so it would seem, the traditional satisfaction of straight-ahead jazz rather than the frisson of innovation. But, modest as they seem, these are revelatory recordings, and they prompt a wholesale reassessment of Miles's mid-career. Is the playing cool? Minimal? Airy? Uneasy with bebop? Not a bit of it. Miles's two nights at the Blackhawk witness some of his fieriest and most loquacious playing and some of his most complex harmonic improvisation. With supreme irony, almost the first thing one hears at the start of the first night, a Friday, is Miles fluffing his intro to a bebop classic, Sonny Rollins's "Oleo." He makes up for it immediately and delivers a blazing solo that must count as one of his best of the period.
The opening set of At the Blackhawk is dominated by a reading of the staple "No Blues," which comes in at more than seventeen minutes. Here again both Miles and Mobley are in their element, but the key to this band is Kelly's work on piano. Kelly has extraordinary hand speed, even greater quickness of thought and exactly the kind of spatial awareness Miles must have looked for in an accompanist. His fast, bluesy piano runs anticipate the horns, support them and pick up their cues almost telepathically. Kelly almost never cuts across Miles or the somewhat lumbering Mobley, and he never plays a facile or merely workmanlike phrase. Every note he plays counts.