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5 Essentials - Jimmy Cobb - 1929 - 2020

Updated: May 27, 2020

Drummer Jimmy Cobb's crisp, buoyant beat has underpinned many of the greatest jazz recordings of the last 60+ years, including Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959). Cobb, who passed away on May 24th, was forever linked to Kind of Blue in interviews, PR copy, and articles, but his rhythmic contributions added to countless recordings and live sessions over the course of his career.

I will leave it to others to provide a comprehensive overview of Cobb's expansive performance history. It could certainly fill a book. Instead, I will share five favorite recordings that I feel capture the essence of Cobb's subtle but captivating drum work, including revisiting the drummer's memorable 2015 gig at The Velvet Note in Alpharetta with trumpeter Russell Gunn's quintet.

After formative stints with Earl Bostic and Dinah Washington in the early 50's, Cobb began an association with saxophonist Julian Cannonball Adderley that lead to an invitation to join Miles Davis' band. In 1959, Davis's sextet with Cobb behind the drum set recorded Kind of Blue, arguably the most famous jazz recording of all time. On "All Blues," Cobb's brushes set a brooding mood in 6/8 time along with the burbling piano accompaniment of Bill Evans and a bass ostinato played by Paul Chambers that forms the foundation of the horn lines on this modified blues form. Cobb switches to sticks for Davis' solo and adds polyrhythmic interjections that tastefully fill the gaps in the famously space-conscious Davis' improvisation. Adderley and John Coltrane solo next, and Cobb's steady beat on the ride cymbal and snare patter provide an earthy juxtaposition to the saxophone pyrotechnics. Evans delivers an impressionistic solo that transitions to an out-chorus that finds Cobb keeping the sticks in his hands as the band vamps after the melody and fades away.

Cobb toured and recorded for a number of years with guitarist Wes Montgomery in the early to mid 1960s. Along with pianist Wynton Kelly -- a Mile Davis bandmate and future employer of Cobb in the Wynton Kelly trio -- Montgomery led burning sessions with Cobb, Kelly, and bassist Paul Chambers such as sets recorded in 1965 at the Half Note in New York City that were released as Smokin' at the Half Note. Two years earlier, Montgomery brought Cobb and organist Melvin Rhyne into the studio to record Boss Guitar for the Riverside label. The opening track, "Besame Mucho" is a tour-de-force for the pared down band. Cobb begins the track on brushes outlining a quiet, litlting 3/4 beat under Rhyne's pedal bass line and Montgomery's summery interpretation of the melody. A break marks the begining of the solo section and Cobb raises the temperature by switching to sticks to compliment the bluesy bends, runs, and ebullient octaves of Montgomery's guitar. Playing a steady three on the ride cymbal and syncopated accents on the rim of the snare, Cobb is the perfect light foil to the searing guitar and insistent organ chords and bass lines.

In the spring of 1963, Miles Davis was in the early stages of reconfiguring his band and his former rhythm section -- Cobb on drums, Wynton Kelly on piano, and Paul Chambers on bass -- were out of a steady gig. The trio decided that they weren't done making music together, and formed the Wynton Kelly Trio. This trio would stay together for the next five years, recording as a trio and behind various horn players on more than a dozen albums. In 1967 and 68, the trio recorded a number of albums with prominent saxophonists at the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore. In April of '68, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson joined the trio for a blazing set that featured extended solos over familiar standards. Cobb takes a rare solo as an intro to Miles Davis' composition "Four" before the band barrels into the melody and plays for more than twelve energetic minutes that are punctuated by occasionally audible cheers from the crowd gathered in the Jazz Society's ballroom.

Cobb was decades into his career before he recorded as a leader in the 1980s. By the 90s, Cobb's Mob, a band that he lead, was a mainstay in jazz clubs in New York City. The track "Delilah" (Victor Young) from Cobb's album Only For the Pure of Heart features a group of musicians who share the drummer's characteristic understated virtuosity. Pianist Richard Wyands provides supple, modern chord voicings under guitarist Peter Bernstein's clean guitar in the repeated A section, before taking over the melody on the bridge himself. The entire performance builds subtly through the solo section without ever feeling rushed or contrived, thanks to Cobb and bassist John Webber's propulsive, sophisticated straight-eighth feel. It's worth mentioning here that Cobb was also a music educator throughout his career, most importantly as one of the original faculty members at The New School's jazz program that opened in 1986. Guitarist Peter Bernstein was one of Cobb's first students at the New School and played with his mentor for years after his graduation.

In 2015, trumpeter Russell Gunn brought Cobb to Atlanta for a performance at the Velvet Note in Alpharetta. Gunn, a modern trumpet master, has fully absorbed the legacy of Miles Davis as well as anyone, and his playing on "So What" directly references Davis' iconic solo before transitioning into his own vocabulary of complex runs full of blazing high notes, cross rhythms, and intervallic leaps. Saxophonist Make Walton takes a similar approach in his solo, starting with ample space and quoting John Coltrane's solo on the original recording before embarking on his own discursive journey. Pianist Kevin Bales nestles into the deep, swinging pocket created by Cobb and bassist Kevin Smith and delivers a sophisticated solo that is punctuated by horn hits before Cobb takes a polyrhythmic solo that leads to the out chorus.

Cobb's association with Gunn was anything but a one-off event. The drummer formed the rhythmic crux of Gunn's Blackhawk Revisited band, an ensemble dedicated to performing music from Miles Davis' seminal Live at the Blackhawk album from 1961. The group performed a very memorable set of music at Dizzy's Club in New York City in 2016 with a band of featuring Cobb, Gunn, Bales again on piano, bassist Corcoran Holt and the great young saxophonist Morgan Guerin.

Throughout his career, Jimmy Cobb stuck to his unique brand of powerful but understated swing through changing times. The 2015 and 2016 concerts illustrate the degree to which Cobb maintained his skills as a musician and continued to inspire new generations of players.


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