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Jimmy Cobb: Before & After

The legendary drummer and NEA Jazz Master listens to fellow legends such as Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Ed Thigpen

Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb

The lone surviving member from 1959’s landmark Kind of Blue sessions, drummer Jimmy Cobb is still swinging forcefully and creatively at age 80 while leading a couple of different working bands. A recent recipient of the NEA Jazz Master Award, Cobb spent a great deal of 2009 touring with his So What Band (trumpeter Wallace Roney, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, pianist Larry Willis and either Buster Williams or John Webber on bass) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that Miles Davis masterpiece.

Cobb also plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Davis’ Sketches of Spain (which he also played on) with several performances next year, beginning with a weeklong engagement at New York’s Iridium nightclub in January 2010.

Meanwhile, he has just released a new ballads project, Jazz in the Key of Blue (Chesky), which finds the revered elder joining forces with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Webber. His rhythmically assured pulse and signature cymbal beat can be heard on countless sessions over the past six decades, including some of the all-time classics by jazz giants like Davis, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Wynton Kelly. This Before & After session was conducted at the midtown Manhattan office of Chesky Records.

1. Miles Davis
“Morpheus” (from Miles Davis & Sonny Rollins: The Classic Prestige Sessions, 1951-1956, Prestige). Davis, trumpet; Rollins, tenor saxophone; Bennie Green, trombone; John Lewis, piano, composition; Percy Heath, bass; Roy Haynes, drums. Recorded in 1951.

BEFORE: I seem to recognize that one a little bit. That’s Miles with Sonny Rollins, with one of my favorite Sonny Rollins solos on it. And that sounds like Snap, Crackle & Pop [Roy Haynes] on the drums. I remember hearing this record when I was a teenager still in Washington, D.C. I used to have this. It’s one of the records I went out and bought. In fact, I listened to it so much I kind of memorized Sonny’s solo a little bit back then.

AFTER: Well, Roy is easy to identify. All that cross sticking he was doing here gave it away. He still does that, but he used to do it a lot back then. In fact, he was one of the first ones that I heard play like that. I met him around that time, too, in ’51. He came to D.C. with Luis Russell’s band and we got to be friends, because he was the kind of guy that you could talk to. Then another time he came back with Pres. I used to see him come down there a lot.

That cymbal intro by Roy is pretty unusual for him.

Well, he was trying to be inventive there. That’s what he’s always been doing, coming up with little things that are really connected to Roy Haynes. Like the way he plays on the snare drum, which is why they used to call him Snap, Crackle & Pop.

2. The Great Jazz Trio
“Someday My Prince Will Come” (from Someday My Prince Will Come, Eighty-Eights/Columbia). Hank Jones, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 2002.

BEFORE: [laughs out loud during the drum solo ] Well, I’m kind of thrown by the piano player. It sounds like Bill [Evans], but it sounds like Bill scuffling. … I don’t know why he would be scuffling. So it sounds like Bill, but it doesn’t. And that’s Elvin. The bass player is probably the guy who used to play with Bill, Scott LaFaro.

AFTER: I thought about Richard Davis. I remember these dates. They did two or three of them together. But to me, it sounded like Hank trying to have a feeling like Bill. Elvin … you can’t hide Elvin anywhere, even on a waltz like this. See, even on ballads, Elvin plays the whole cymbal beat on snare drum. That’s how come I can get him out of the closet like that real quick. And then, of course, when he went into his solo … there ain’t nobody else like that. Yeah, he’s an octopus after that. I remember doing a gig with Hank in Japan and we were playing a ballad. And he got finished playing the solo and he looked at me and says, “You got it.” I got what? [laughs] He wanted me to play a solo on the ballad like Elvin just did here. I don’t know, I probably got away with something, but that was surprising just to do that on the bandstand like that.

I thought it was clever to open this piece with the riff from Bird’s “Scrapple From the Apple” before segueing right into “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

Yeah, the Joneses are like that. That whole family was tricky. Elvin was tricky like that on the drums, Thad was tricky like that on the trumpet and Hankenstein, as I call him, was tricky like that on piano. Hank tells me that he had a sister who played piano and if she had lived she would’ve bumped them all off because she was that bad. That’s some good genes in that Jones family.

3. Ed Thigpen Trio
“Sometime Ago” (from Mr. Taste, Justin Time). Thigpen, drums; Tony Purrone, guitar; Mads Vinding, bass. Recorded in 1991.

BEFORE: I got a blank for that. I don’t know who the guitar player is. It sounds like John Scofield or somebody like that. The bass player might be Eddie Gomez. And the brushes sound real good here. Is it Lewis Nash?

AFTER: No kidding! Ed and I started out about the same time on the road. He was with Cootie Williams’ band and I was with Earl Bostic. Then he had all those years with Oscar Peterson and I always knew he played good brushes. That’s one of his signatures. Another great brush player is the guy who plays with Diana Krall now, Jeff Hamilton. I thought it might’ve been him on this tune. Thigpen was noted for his brush playing because he probably had to do a lot of it with Oscar. And we each had our own different approaches to playing brushes. It’s whatever works for you.

You’re noted for your brush playing on “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue and all the stuff you played on Porgy & Bess and Sketches of Spain.

For me, it was just a question of giving Miles what he wanted. Miles would ask for different things at critical times. Like one time we were working with Gil Evans and the big band and Miles came over and said, “Make it sound like it’s floating.” So I came up with something that felt like that. Then Gil came over and said, “Floating is cool but you have to keep the band together.” So some kind of way we got it together.

It’s a tricky balancing act between keeping time and eliminating the notion of time.

Yeah, but with that particular pattern you just keep hearing One all the time. So long as you’re gonna hear One, that’s all they have to have. And if you just keep doing that, it’ll work itself out. A guy was asking me one time, “How do you play with the brushes?” And I told him, “Well, there’s only a certain number of things you can do. There’s one pattern that you play that’s like a cymbal beat on the snare drum. Then there’s the thing where you make a slow kind of a circle thing from right to left with the left hand while the right hand is going from left to right. And anything you come up with after that that keeps the band together, it works. So there aren’t a whole lot of things. Basically, it’s what you can get away with while still keeping the band together. Make it mellow for the band. I had to play brushes a lot when I was with Dinah Washington when I first came to New York [in late 1951]. Before I even left home I played a couple weeks with Billie Holiday. She’s got some really slow stuff, like “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain,” where you gotta play brushes. So I had to get into that. So I had a lot of experience playing brushes behind singers before I ever got with Miles. And then after I left Miles I worked with Sarah Vaughan for nine years, and you know she does really beautiful slow ballads. So I got to play a lot of brushes with her during that period. There’s definitely an art to playing brushes and everybody’s got their own way to do it.

The rest of this Before & After session with Jimmy Cobb is in the November 2009 issue of JazzTimes. Originally Published