Jimmy Cobb, who turned 88 on Jan. 20, will probably always be hailed first in the popular conversation as the drummer on the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. That’s how a cultural touchstone works, and Cobb, a 2009 NEA Jazz Master, hasn’t shied away from the distinction. But of course there’s an entire career full of other highlights to celebrate, moments that underscore Cobb’s strong glide with the beat and agile attunement to a band. Here are five tracks to savor.
But first, it’s worth pointing out that Cobb is still playing with authority and undiminished élan. He appeared last year on Colors for the Masters, a fine album by trombonist Steve Turre, and he’s featured on a brand-new release by the respectful young pianist Emmet Cohen: Masters Legacy Series: Vol. 1 Featuring Jimmy Cobb.
He's an excellent subject for this first installment of Take Five — our new weekly playlist feature.
Miles Davis Sextet, “Oleo,” from Jazz at the Plaza
Many jazz fans who know Cobb’s work with Davis will point to his work at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which preceded Kind of Blue by a year, and features an indelible rhythmic performance on “Two Bass Hit.” There’s no reasonable argument to make against that selection, but I felt honor-bound to shine a light on this one. Recorded as part of a promotional event at the Plaza Hotel on Sept. 9, 1958, it somehow wasn’t released until 1973 — and that LP mistakenly credited Philly Joe Jones as the drummer. This is actually the Kind of Blue band playing a set of standards, and “Oleo” is the most dynamic of the bunch. Cobb begins on brushes, hitting a ringing series of accents in sync with pianist Bill Evans, and dropping out (save for his hi-hat) during stretches of Davis’s Harmon-muted solo. When he finally switches to sticks on the ride cymbal behind John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone, around the track’s two-minute mark, it feels like a thoroughbred bursting out of a starting gate. Hard-bop perfection.
Wynton Kelly, “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” from Kelly Blue
It’s possible that no partnership in Cobb’s sideman career made more sense, on the level of groove, than the one he had with pianist Wynton Kelly. From one angle this is another tether to Kind of Blue, via “Freddie Freeloader.” But the real story is the Wynton Kelly Trio, in which Cobb played alongside either Paul Chambers or Sam Jones. Kelly Blue, from 1959, features Chambers — and on some tracks, Nat Adderley on cornet, Bobby Jaspar on flute and Benny Golson on tenor saxophone. For this mosey through “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise,” though, it’s just the trio, working a medium swing tempo with the deepest possible pocket. Listen for the way that Cobb subtly asserts the beat whenever Kelly decides to hang back.
Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery, “Four On Six,” from Smokin’ at the Half Note
Does it seem redundant to have another Kelly track in the mix? It shouldn’t, given that Smokin’ at the Half Note is so universally loved as Wes Montgomery’s shining hour. There aren’t enough encomiums in the dictionary for this album, recorded in 1965. Montgomery’s guitar playing is soulful and impeccable, and the trio cooks behind him. You could pick any track for inclusion here, but mine would be “Four On Six,” which — along with brilliant solos by Montgomery, Kelly and an arco Chambers — has a rhythmic motor both powerful and smooth. Cobb also takes an excellent turn himself, starting out trading fours and then expanding to a full chorus.
Sarah Vaughan, “Bye Bye Blackbird,” from Live in Japan, Vol. 2
Cobb has had some momentous affiliations with singers, including Dinah Washington, with whom he was also romantically involved. He served a few tours with Sarah Vaughan at the height of her powers, in the 1970s. Perhaps you heard Live at Rosy’s, the previously unreleased live album originally recorded by NPR, and released on Resonance Records last year. (If not, you should.) Live in Japan is a classic recorded in 1973, and this track comes at the end of the concert, as an audience request. “You know, I’ve never recorded ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’” Vaughan says, “and I’ll do it.” She has to take a moment up front to figure out the key, and as the band gets started she also fiddles with the tempo: “A little faster." It’s a testament both to her improvisational genius and Cobb’s powers of adjustment that the performance is so smashing.
Jimmy Cobb, “Remembering U,” from The Original Mob
Finally, it would be a crime not to acknowledge Cobb’s track record as a bandleader, his skill as a ballads player, and his lesser-known gifts as a composer. This track, recorded at Smoke (sans audience) a couple of years ago, takes care of all of the above. “Remembering U” is a handsome theme that Cobb had previously recorded on a 2009 album, with Roy Hargrove playing the melody on flugelhorn. This album enacts a reunion of Jimmy Cobb’s Mob, which formed around one of Cobb’s classes at the New School in the early ‘90s. The melody is played with sensitivity by guitarist Peter Bernstein; the others in the group are pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist John Webber. Listen to the way that Cobb briefly flirts with double time during Mehldau’s solo — and the general air of reverie that the band creates.