In 1959 Shelly Manne recorded a series of live concerts at the Black Hawk Club in San Francisco. To my opinion they remain some of the greatest hardbop recordings that were made at the West Coast during that era. And they have been an inspiration for my own concerts since the day I heard them. I believe these recordings do not always get the attention they deserve and are often overlooked, just like the drummer who recorded them. But they have great historic value and I will try to explain why.
When the Blackhawk engagement began, Shelly decided the call Lester Koenig from Contemporary Records to record it. The piano and vibraphone player, Victor Feldman, who joined especially for this occasion, added something to the group that had to be captured on tape. The result was Shelly Manne and his Men at the Black Hawk, volume one till four. Later a fifth volume would even be added to the series. Throughout his lengthy recording career, Shelly Manne was capable of always attracting just the right horn players to essay the distinctive Shelly Manne and his Men signature sound. For this set the band features Richie Kamuca on tenor saxophone and Joe Gordon on trumpet. The band recorded two Benny Golson tunes at the Black Hawk, Whisper Not and Step Lightly. Step Lightly has some inspiring two feel playing and a very strong opening solo by Richie Kamuca. Just Squeeze Me is a tune in three. A great example that showcases how Shelly is there with every note the solo player is playing. Or he is there with what is happening in the rhythm section. He seems to hear everything, and switches to double time occasionally but always with perfect taste, never making the music sound nervous.
The ballads and waltzes that are recorded here are a great example of Shelly Manne opening up the tunes. It works because it is all coming from a very melodic approach. Everything he plays makes the music better and more taste full. On some recordings you can hear that the solo player is really playing of the energy of the drummer and bass player. It is not always about that all the time.
Overall these series of records contain some of my favourite piano playing in quintet that I know of. Victor has a beautiful sound and touch and plays some wonderful solos on for instance Wonder Why and Poinciana. Not only were these recordings the first live recordings of Shelly with his group, they also where the only recordings with Victor Feldman joining Shelly Manne and his Men. You can hear that every soloist was given the time needed to play what they had to say. One of the essential qualities of jazz, the sound of surprise, is always there. Shelly Manne and his men created a deep rich sound here with a strength and sensitivity that is remarkable.