By Michael Ullman
Nothing in this session reminds us of the age of the principals. That in itself, if not miraculous, is at least impressive.
Jimmy Cobb, This I Dig of You (Smoke Sessions) with Harold Mabern, John Webber, and Peter Bernstein.
In the spring of 1959, drummer Jimmy Cobb took part in the two recording sessions that made up Miles Davis’ iconic jazz album, Kind of Blue. He doesn’t remember them particularly. But then he is not, he confesses, particularly nostalgic. Peter Bernstein, his guitarist on his new album, This I Dig of You, made when Cobb was 90 (and his pianist Harold Mabern 83), notes that Cobb lives, musically at least, in the moment. And that means the tunes they play aren’t treated in a sanctified manner. Bernstein says: “Some of them are so iconic from the original recordings, that just out of respect, I’m not trying to do a cover…but he doesn’t care. He’s just like, ‘It’s a nice tune. Do you feel like playing it?”
Cobb has been playing nice tunes seemingly from birth, but observant jazz fans may first have heard of him in 1952 when, after several recording dates with saxophonist Earl Bostic, the drummer started backing up the blues and jazz singer Dinah Washington. In January 1952, she recorded songs such as “Wheel of Fortune” and “Trouble in Mind” accompanied by “Jimmy Cobb’s Orchestra.” The band featured solos by tenor greats Ben Webster and Wardell Gray. A little later, Cobb was performing off and on with the pianist with whose name he will always be linked: Wynton Kelly. When he was still with Bostic, Cobb heard the then teen-aged pianist. Ironically, they didn’t bond immediately; but Cobb knew he had just heard an emerging star. In an interview with me, he recalled “Wynton was unorthodox. He played with three fingers on his right hand — not the thumb and not the little finger. Just like Wes (Montgomery) used to play all those lines with his thumb. Those guys come from another place. I never had that much talent. I had to study.” Famously, after recording at least eight sessions with Cannonball Adderley, and sneaking in sessions with the likes of Carmen McRae, Cobb joined bassist Paul Chambers on bass and Kelly to become the rhythm section of the Miles Davis Quintet that also featured John Coltrane.
They were one of the most celebrated rhythm sections in jazz, a popular attraction on their own and frequently used as a unit on some of the best recordings of the time. While still with Miles, the trio made records such as Introducing Wayne Shorter, Art Pepper’s Getting’ Together, Wes Montgomery’s Full House and Smokin’ at the Half Note and Benny Golson’s Turning Point. Wanting to play their own repertoire, the trio split from Miles Davis in 1963. They struggled a bit financially, but never musically. They were revered among musicians, both for their own recordings and for the way they fit into almost any swinging band. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson played with them during a live date in 1968 at the Left Bank Society. He told me that it was like entering, intruding really, on hallowed ground. Henderson praised Cobb in particular. In our interview (about the record Four!) Henderson told me: “I’ve never heard Jimmy Cobb sound better…Cobb just blew me away. He plays some solos that are absolutely incredible. You just don’t hear those kinds of solos.“ Henderson may have been thinking of Cobb’s long, though excitingly taut and rational, solo on the title cut, “Four.”)
The death of Kelly in 1971 was, of course, a blow. Cobb persisted, playing behind Sarah Vaughan for years, and then with just about everybody. He kept up with the youngsters. I’ll note in particular Geri Allen’s 2006 recording, Timeless Portraits and Dreams. Cobb told me he grew up playing rhythm and blues and accompanying dancers at the Apollo, as well as performing swing and bop. He’s played discreetly behind singers, and accompanied 45 minute solos by John Coltrane with all the verve and spirit and inventiveness that was called for. (He remembers Miles asking Coltrane if, next time, he could take 27 choruses instead of 28). Music, Cobb says, is simply what he does, even at age 90.
His experience, if not his age, shows on This I Dig of You, in the unusual choice of tunes, the perfect choice of sidemen, and in the way he makes the the band’s performances sound both spontaneous and fluid. One can hear it in the way he navigates the various rhythms of Wes Montgomery’s “Full House,” a piece that begins with Cobb’s tom-toms and a ticking rhythm during the introduction. Once the main theme comes in, Cobb switches to cymbals and a chattering snare drum commentary. It’s not just the precision of the sound and its glorious contrasts that matter, but the way Cobb makes every shift seem smooth — almost inevitable. “Full House” is mostly dedicated (appropriately) to guitarist Peter Bernstein’s Wes Montgomery-influenced sound: he’s a wonder throughout. Then there’s the solo from the bluesy Memphis-born pianist Harold Mabern. He has almost as long a pedigree as Cobb: in 1959 he recorded for Vee Jay with the popular group MJT+3.
The disc opens with Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You.” Kelly and Chambers played on Mobley’s original recording (on Soul Station), but Art Blakey was the drummer. Here Cobb and Mabern provide a lesson in swinging accompaniment as they play behind Bernstein. Mabern’s solo is a thumping two-handed workout that leads to the three principals trading fours. The band plays Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake” and a tune forgotten by me, though Billy Eckstine sang it and John Coltrane played it: “I’ll Wait and Pray” by George Treadwell, who is remembered (when at all) as a mediocre trumpet player once married to Sarah Vaughan, whom he managed, along with Ruth Brown and the Drifters. But it’s a lovely tune, sweetly introduced by Mabern and given a kind of lazy grandeur by Bernstein. Again, Cobb’s active — but discreet — drumming on this ballad is a pleasure, as are the bass lines of John Webber, a frequent collaborator with Mabern. Nothing in this session reminds us of the age of the principals. That in itself, if not miraculous, is at least impressive. This I Dig of You delvers a solid, joyously swinging set of mainstream jazz.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.