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At the time of its release this session made as much of an impact for its length (4 LPs on the redoubtable Contemporary label) as for the music itself. But it was a consistent and yet musically diverse and vital "post-bop" program (the group's theme, "A Gem from Tiffany," is the only repeated number). Best of all, the four albums provided an extended look at the leadership and musicianship of the era's most consistently poll-winning drummer, Shelly Manne.
The Columbia Session under Miles Davis' name, "Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk," is the more vital release because of the incomparable personnel--an especially strong outing by Hank Mobley. The tenor saxophonist (an extremely reluctant replacement for the recently departed John Coltrane) simply "thrives" in the freedom of Jimmy Cobb's unobstructed, open ride cymbal, as the drummer gives way to the beauty of Mobley's melodic-rhythmic constructions, eschewing potentially conflicting, disruptive "bebop" rhythmic figures on his snare and toms.
Shelley Manne doesn't have a Hank Mobley, Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers at his disposal for what is a "marathon" session. Understandably, he takes a more active, "Art Blakey-like" role than Jimmy Cobb, at once whipping his cast of "low profile" players into heavyweight contention while inspiring them to reach down for that little extra, reaching a musical potential not heard from them on recordings either before and after this critical Blackhawk session. Playing with fire and hard-driving swing throughout, he gets the most from some musicians who rarely got their due. Richie Kamuca was an unheralded tenor player out of the Prez school, never short on imaginative melodic ideas; Joe Gordon, once pronounced the likely successor to Dizzy, found himself unemployed after the break-up of the Gillespie big band and migrated to the West Coast in search of work. Though less consistent than Kamuca, he still shows some of the early promise that distinguished his playing in the Gillespie band.
But the primary appeal of this fifth volume is that it contains music not released on the original vinyl discs. "Gem from Tiffany" receives its fullest treatment on Volume 4, but each of the other tunes comes as a fresh discovery. Highlights include Harry Warren's "This Is Always" (has he every composed a bad tune?), perhaps the most notable ballad on all five albums, followed immediately by "Wonder Why," a felicitous tune that few musicians go to any more (Elyn Rucker has an easily recommended recent recording). This latter tune features only the "power" rhythm section of Russ Freeman, piano; Monty Budwig, bass; and the boss himself. (One of the delights is occasionally hearing Shelly vocally directing the group, even shouting out the elusive "ONE" when he senses there's disagreement among the five about its placement).
Despite his widespread popularity (especially because of the trio albums with Andre Previn), Shelly was dismissed by many of the "hard core" jazz listeners of the day, primarily because he was associated with "West Coast," "sterile," "white" music as opposed to the putatively "authentic" stuff going down at Blue Note and Prestige on the East Coast. But there's nothing stereotypically "West Coast" about Shelly's playing on this recording. He plays with aggressiveness, power, and unrelenting, propulsive swing throughout each of the sets. Listening to him prod these obscure players into prime-time prominence is in itself a pleasure--much like that of hearing Art Blakey schooling his Messengers, night after night, from tentative "boys" into fully developed men, each capable of responding with distinction to Art's constant verbal interjection: "Play your horn!" Similarly, on this occasion some otherwise overlooked musicians can stand tall as "Shelly's men."
[To those reviewers who complain that Shelly doesn't take any extended drum solos, learn how to listen! What he's doing behind the other musicians, ensuring that the creative fire is never dimmed, is of far greater interest than a pyrotechnical display. You won't hear extended drum solos on a Clifford Brown-Max Roach recording, an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers recording, a Miles Davis recording (with Philly joe, Jimmy Cobb, or Tony Williams), and Shelly Manne was not about to break tradition with the new, totally "musical" role of the drummer. HOWEVER, for diehard fans of drum solos there is one notable exception in the modern era. Frank Butler (who played briefly with Miles) simply had no peers when it came to playing well-structured, musical (and even "melodic") drum solos. Try, first of all, his work with the ceaselessly inspiring Curtis Counce group, especially his dazzling solo on A Fifth For Frank (a tune composed for Frank by the inimitable pianist Carl Perkins). Another impressive example of Butler's legerdemain is The Butler Did It. But Butler's greatest contributions can be heard in his ceaselessly swinging, engaging "musical conversation" with frontline soloists like Carl Perkins, tenor saxophonist Harold Land, and the always immediately identifiable, humorous, and adventurous trumpet voice of the great Jack Sheldon.}