Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band isn’t done celebrating “Kind of Blue” just yet.
The landmark Miles Davis album, released in 1959, had its big 50th birthday in 2009. Cobb, the drummer, who is the only surviving member of the album’s seven players, hit the road last year with a crop of seasoned jazz greats to re-create the record’s five pieces for audiences around the country.
Still in demand
But although the anniversary date has come and gone, Cobb is still finding a demand for the So What Band’s show. So far this year, he has four dates booked for the group, the first being a performance at The Egg tonight.
“I don’t know, you can call this the 51st anniversary I guess,” he said recently from his home in New York City. “The reaction’s been very good — we did about 40 gigs last year and had standing ovations everywhere we went, so I think that’s pretty good. That’s never happened to me before.”
For Gazette music writer Michael Hochanadel's review of this show, click here.
That might be a little hard to believe, considering Cobb’s long resume as one of jazz’s premier drummers for the past six decades. His list of collaborators over the years includes Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Kelly, Wes Montgomery and Sarah Vaughan, to name only a few.
But he’s perhaps best known for his stint with Davis’ band, from 1957 to 1963. His tenure in the band encompassed a number of classic records along with “Kind of Blue,” including 1958’s “Porgy and Bess” and “1958 Miles,” 1960’s “Sketches of Spain” and 1961’s “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
For the majority of the “Kind of Blue” sessions, comprising just two dates in 1959, Davis’ band was Cobb, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Bill Evans, with Wynton Kelly playing piano on one track, “Freddie Freeloader.”
“What stuck out in my mind, is that it was just an ordinary record of Miles Davis, that everybody played good on,” Cobb said. “At that time, it wasn’t too uncommon for Miles to have a good record, but this one seemed to stay — it seemed to outsell all the rest of them. I have no idea what that reason is.”
“Kind of Blue” has become the quintessential instrumental jazz album in the minds of not just jazz aficionados but the general listening public, having sold more than 4 million copies. The songs have gone on to inspire generations of jazz players with their extensive use of modality.
“At the time we made the album, it was at a time where, I guess, people were just looking for a change in the music,” Cobb said. “At the time, Miles was the guy; Miles was the trend in jazz music. Everybody looked up to see what Miles was gonna be doing, and even after I got out of the band, it was the same way.
“That time, we played some simple little music — it wasn’t structured, it wasn’t Broadway or anything like that, it was just a few chords. He played a few chords, or melodies — scales and chords, and it worked out. They called it modal. Anybody could listen to it, and I think that’s what did it.”
The lengthy excursions on “Kind of Blue” embody the epitome of the term “improvisation.” As with most of Davis’ albums, the band did not rehearse any of the material before the recording sessions, and there was no sheet music involved.
“Miles came in with some kind of sketches for what he wanted, and they performed it,” Cobb said. “He may not even have had manuscript paper. Or he wrote some changes down on a piece of manuscript paper, but I definitely didn’t have anything.”
For Cobb, who by this time was used to working with Davis in this manner, the sessions went smoothly. “There was no challenge — he would tell me what the time signatures were, what was supposed to swing and what was supposed to be soft and pretty,” he said.
Cobb’s approach to the So What Band — featuring tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, trumpeter Wallace Roney, bassist Buster Williams, pianist Larry Willis and alto saxophonist Vincent Herring — was similar to Davis’, with little rehearsal of the material required. When Cobb set about pulling together the musicians for his So What Band, named for the first track on “Kind of Blue,” he chose players that knew the music and in many cases knew the original players.
“Larry Willis, he was a protege of Wynton Kelly … and he knew all about the music,” Cobb said. “And Buster Williams is like a protege of Paul Chambers. We used Wallace Roney; he was a friend of Miles, they was tight, and he knew all the music. Javon Jackson and Vincent Herring knew all of Cannonball’s music. We got guys who were related to the music, let’s say.”
As such, the So What Band’s performances of “Kind of Blue” stick remarkably close to the original recording.
“It’s probably a new perspective to the old music, but basically, they feel the same way about it that the guy that played it felt about it when we did it the first time,” Cobb said. “And they are all good players, so they can bring it about.”
Although he’s open to playing as many shows with the So What Band as he can get, Cobb has plenty of other projects to keep him busy. He’s currently working on a new group to perform Wes Montgomery’s music, and may possibly be recording a new solo album with his own quartet later this year. A recording session with the So What Band doesn’t seem likely, although Cobb won’t rule it out entirely.
“I think the first recording should say enough, that people wouldn’t have to do it again,” Cobb said. “The guys asked me to do it, but I’ve frowned on it; I figured it was kind of sacrilegious, so I’m backing off it. But I don’t know, it still might occur.”