June 23, 2009 / 8:24 PM / 10 years ago

50 years on, drummer still relishes "Kind of Blue"

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb has spent the last half century laying down rhythms for stars like Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson, so one might expect him to tire of talking about the milestone record on which he played in 1959. But one would be wrong.

The record was Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” widely considered one of the most influential albums in jazz, and one that is finding renewed interest in its 50th anniversary year.

As the sole survivor of the group that played on the album, Cobb, 80, is still talking about it — and playing music from it — as the leader of the So What Band, named for the landmark album’s opening tune.

“I enjoyed it when we did it, and I never thought that it would come to be, 50 years later, what it has come to be,” he told Reuters ahead of Calgary’s jazz festival where the tribute band will play while on tour.

“Besides loving the music, and me being the only one you can talk to about it — that’s a lot of good reasons to talk about it, I think.”

“Kind of Blue”, which also featured saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, and bassist Paul Chambers, was seen as a turning point for jazz because its five songs are mostly improvisations with relatively few chord changes when compared to the rambunctious bebop style that preceded it.

On the record, made at two sessions at Columbia 30th Street Studio in New York in March and April of 1959, Davis and his group eschewed loud, fiery solos and up-tempo tunes, preferring a light, elegant sound with scant embellishment.

That’s where Washington D.C.-born Cobb came in.

Davis, who died in 1991, made a career of surrounding himself with just the right players for a particular style. He chose Cobb for his smooth cadences that did not rely on flash.

“If he wanted that he would have used Philly Joe (Jones) because he had been in the band, but he wanted what I brought,” he said.

Cobb said that was key, because Davis provided his players with only a bare “map” of what he wanted, rather than detailed musical scores. He wanted musicians around him who could inspire him with their ideas.

Cobb, who had played earlier with Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie, simmered at the drums on tracks such as “Freddie Freeloader,” “All Blues” and “Blue in Green,” which became required listening for generations of musicians.

He had no inkling during the sessions the status the record would attain as one of a handful of must-haves album’s in every jazz fan’s collection.

“If I knew that, I might have also gone to the racetrack and invested in the stock market,” he said.

Davis had a reputation for being aloof and hard on players who did not meet his expectations. But during Cobb’s time with the trumpeter from 1957 to 1963, he and Davis became close.

The drummer would drive his bandleader to the gym and photograph him working on his boxing footwork, he said.

Today’s tribute band, featuring trumpeter Wallace Roney, Javon Jackson and Vincent Herring on sax, pianist Larry Willis and Buster Williams on bass, has its own strengths, Cobb is adamant it isn’t simply an attempt to reproduce the original.

“That’s never going to be duplicated, so we need to get away from that right away,” he said.

Still, all the members have varying degrees of connection to the initial roster, most notably Roney, to whom Davis was mentor, Cobb said.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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