Recommending CDs is always a difficult affair. As soon as you say that some CD is desert island material for you, someone gets on your case, taking you to task for having said that, stating that the relative merit of this or that recording diminishes when taking other, more relevant recordings into consideration. On top of that, in jazz circles, one is always prone to be drawn into endless discussions with fans complaining that one is ignoring East Coast jazz when recommending a superb example of West Coast jazz, as is the case here. In the end, usually, everyone’s none the wiser.
If you read my site regularly, you know that I recommend recordings based more on a mostly emotional response. I do list some negatives here and there, but if there aren’t any, in my little world, I won’t try to come up with any. I’m also not all that objective because there are enough reviews out there that try their very best to weigh the pros and cons to give you a seemingly accurate description of a recording. That approach usually leaves me somewhat cold, although it does have its merits, because I want to read about what a recording did for someone. Is it music that resonates with a person and, most importantly, why did it have that effect?
Having said all that, the five CDs that comprise the complete reissue series of “Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk” are what I would consider to be some the best live jazz ever recorded. Whenever I’m asked why I like jazz and what jazz means to me, I put on any or all of these CDs. Considering the many thousand CDs I have, I’m often surprised that it’s really that simple.
Besides having been exposed to jazz from an early age via my dad’s record collection, I really got into jazz when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, visiting the small clubs there regularly, soaking in the jazz scene and trying to catch as much of especially small group (live) jazz as I could.
There’s a certain atmosphere in a smaller jazz club that is hard to describe. It’s about – on good nights – sitting in a rather crowded place, close to the musicians/the band, having a beer or three and trying to see something through all the smoke that’s being produced. It’s about enjoying live music in its purest form, watching it being developed right in front of your eyes, taking in the interplay between musicians that have either been playing together for ages or have just gotten together to create something more spontaneous. It’s about talking to other people with usually the same mindset about what is being created in front of your eyes and ears, debating and learning. It’s all of that and more. It’s a special kind of intimacy.
So, when I got these five CDs, I instantly felt at home. The Black Hawk, a once legendary San Francisco nightclub on the corner of Turk Street and Hyde Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, sounds just like many of the clubs I used to frequent, especially if you take one of the owners’ comments into consideration, who is supposed to have said that
I’ve worked and slaved to keep this place a sewer.
This is a live recording, committed to tape on three days in September of 1959, with Shelly Manne, who did not have his regular working band with him (Russ Freeman was absent, touring Europe with Benny Goodman, and was replaced by Victor Feldman, a vibes player who only plays piano here) and who, after a week of playing at the Black Hawk, actually enthusiastically phoned Contemporary, the record label, to come over and record the band:
I’ve never asked this before but we all feel you should come up and record the group in the club.
Originally, Contemporary had been thinking of producing one single album but, as Lester Koening put it in the liner notes:
Later, in Los Angeles, listening to the playbacks, it was apparent that the performances were so consistent any choice would have been arbitrary, and whatever was left out of the album would be just as good as what went in. So, on the principle that proper length should be dictated by interest rather than time limit, Shelly decided to issue all the material.
It must be noted, before we continue here, that these five discs also display phenomenal sonic qualities. Reissued on CD in 1991 by Contemporary Records, they are still some of the best-sounding CDs available today and if you want to show your friends what a good CD can sound like, buy these and fire up your amp. When compared to the limitless amount of low-quality and altogether shoddy reissues around today, even the well-meaning ones, it is simply amazing how good these CDs sound and I don’t think any amount of careful remastering can make them sound any better (unless, perhaps, some Japanese engineers decide to work these over for a complete boxed set I would appreciate).
It is no surprise that these have such extraordinary sonic qualities as they were recorded by one of the truly great Hollywood recording engineers who was responsible for many of the Contemporary sessions: Howard Holzer. Carefully remastered – or better: transferred to the CD medium – in 1991 by Phil De Lancie (Fantasy Studios in Berkley, CA), these CDs are the epitome of a living and breathing live sound captured perfectly and consistently across the entire live gig, preserving the very special ambiance. This recording puts you smack-dab in the middle of the club. I have heard someone complain that the channels are perhaps reversed, with Joe Gordon and Victor Feldman on the left and Richie Kamuca on the right, but I have no idea if this is in fact correct. Suffice it to say that it really does not matter in this instance.
Originally, the three days at the Black Hawk were issued on four LPs and are available today in augmented form as five CDs, supplemented by alternate takes on each disc and what we are presented with is a perfect free blowing session with superb ensemble playing in stellar sound. I mean, what else could anyone ask for? The interplay between all of the musicians, a prime example of a leading modern jazz group of its time, is something special because it is at the highest level and seamless – you have the impression that this is a band that has played together since they took up their instruments.
At the center we have Shelly Manne, perhaps one of the most musical and altogether sensitive drummers of all time. He grew up in and learned his trade from a large number of ensembles and jam sessions he participated in and it shows. He wasn’t the one to push himself to the forefront (some fans of his have complained that he doesn’t solo enough on these recordings, but I would say they’re the better for it) with technical extravaganzas and the flashy show of fireworks, but he concentrated on moving the music forward, supporting the band members. Best of all, he doesn’t “push” as so many other known drummers have done. Instead, he lets the music develop and just “reigns” it in, somewhat.
What the rest of the band does is difficult to describe. I tried before to explain how much and how effectively these discs convey the sense of being there, of hearing music being developed, phrases being bounced around the stage, picked up and developed further only to be taken one step beyond on the next bounce. There are many lengthy performances on here (around 20 are more than 10 minutes long, some close to 20) and the chemistry between especially Joe Gordon (trumpet) and Richie Kamuca (tenor saxophone) is exceptional. Because they are given ample room to stretch out majorly, they do, and the results are fascinating. After countless listening sessions those two still bring many smiles to my face as I try to picture a surprised frown or a wide smile developing on any of the two faces after another successful trade-off. Add to that Victor Feldman who, as mentioned before, is sitting in here as pianist (not a doorbell to be heard) and does a spectacular job (also as a soloist). If you want to hear what Feldman was capable of on the piano, you need to turn to these 5 discs anyways as other work is not exactly easy to find. Monty Budwig lays a swinging and rock-steady – but versatile – base (he also plays some excellent solos) together with Manne, and the whole group just jells. These guys swing hard, they know their bebop inside out, they know their cool, and they give you a prolonged glimpse into what the West Coast sound was all about.
Altogether, you get a prime example of mainstream jazz played in an intimate setting in almost perfect sound. I also like to cite these discs as the one strong argument in a defense of West Coast jazz which is often trivialized and accused of being basically lifeless. Once you start investigating what came after the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton bands in the fifties, you will probably end up with these five discs which are, in a way, the culmination point and one of the best examples of what that scene had to offer. The five discs also show a band at the height of its art.
If you ask me which tunes to sample, I could name three tunes off the bat that I have played so often that the CDs are beginning to wear thin in those places. “Step Lightly”, “Cabu”, and “Whisper Not” should give you a good idea of the mastery on display here. Two of the above tunes fall into the midtempo department, one definitely into the uptempo one (“Cabu”). All three are so good that I never get tired of hearing them.
Beg, steal and borrow, so you have three sets!
You won’t regret it.
A word of warning: It has become difficult to find all five of these discs although when or if you do, they are still reasonably cheap (definitely below $10 a piece). Many people have waited too long and right now it still is possible to scrounge them together by hitting the various Amazon sites, the Amazon marketplace dealers and a second-hand shop or two. Do not wait too long because as it looks right now, there’ll be only a few weeks until some of these discs will have disappeared … hopefully only for now.