Jimmy Cobb is a peerless timekeeper who takes pride in being a compassionate accompanist--more concerned with making the music swing than in shining the spotlight on his own prestidigitations. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine how Miles Davis's legendary Kind of Blue sessions could have turned out with such elegant clarity if not for the tasteful restraint and keen sense of color and dynamics Jimmy Cobb brought to these jazz haikus.
"A lot of guys, when they finally get a chance to step onto the bandstand, they try and play all the stuff they've practiced all week--whether it fits the context of that tune or not. But you see, I have a lot of patience, and I don't do that. I just try and get with the bass player and have it swing and make it come out how everyone would like it. I was always an accompanist. I played with a lot of people and tried not to be in the way, to prop things up and make things sound good. I mean, when they first started making bebop records, everyone would play their asses off for like two choruses and be in and out of the whole damn tune in under three minutes." Cobb chuckles. "So to me it's not how long you can play or how much technique you've got--it's whatever you say with the time you've got there."Now, with the release of his Milestone debut, the joyously grooving Cobb's Groove, while he still deflects the spotlight away from himself and onto his band--Jimmy Cobb's Mob--this consummate team player has fashioned a defining document as a leader, illustrating as few of his countless sideman dates can, the enduring grace and multitiered levels of swing that define the distinctive rhythmic persona jazz fans have come to love as Jimmy Cobb.
Cobb's Mob has its origins in Jimmy's work as a musical mentor at Manhattan's New School, where Jimmy was drawn to the beautiful Grant Green-influenced guitar sound of student Peter Bernstein, who in turn introduced him to bassist John Webber. Shortly thereafter, they began making some little gigs around town with pianist Brad Mehldau (as documented on Bernstein's 1992 debut as a leader for Criss Cross, Somethin's Burnin'). Jimmy's old friend, pianist Richard Wyands (whom Jimmy first encountered back on the early-Fifties San Francisco scene when touring with Dinah Washington) formally joined Cobb Mob's for their scantily distributed 1998 release Only for the Pure of Heart (on Lightyear), though for all intents and purposes, Cobb's Groove--with the addition of young tenor titan Eric Alexander--marks the popular debut of this working band as a recording entity.
And what Cobb's Mob does best is to reference the liquid cherry center of hard bop, as on "Cobb's Groove" where Jimmy's readily identifiable cymbal beat sets the pace for a driving collective groove. That groove, despite Jimmy's being right up on top of the beat, is somehow both heroically laid back yet right in the pocket. "Yeah, maybe I play a bit in front of the beat," Cobb admits, "and they're trying to lay back, and as you try and keep it from getting faster, that can create this beautiful tension of the groove pulling both ways at once."
That manner of rhythmic equipoise helps to define in part what makes Jimmy Cobb's drumming so distinctive. Yet in probing deeper into the roots of this Washington, DC native (born January 20, 1929), one can also cite his early exposure to the likes of Robert Johnson and other blues icons through an uncle's record collection and his seminal experiences on the road in post-World War II America with r&b giants the likes of saxophonist Earl Bostic and the Empress of the Blues, Miss Dinah Washington. On the Horace Silver-styled cadences of "Minor Changes" and the Blue Note boogaloo of "Bobblehead" (both Peter Bernstein charts), you can plainly discern how Cobb's drumming combines elements of blues, r&b, and bop into a coherent style--a simultaneous eighth note/triplet-dotted eighth/sixteenth accommodation of rock and swing feelings that is the very essence of contemporary drumming. While most people would credit these innovations to Tony Williams, Tony surely derived some part of his concept from Jimmy Cobb.
"Yeah, well we used to practice a lot together," says Cobb, "and Tony gave me a lot of respect, more than he gave a whole lot of guys, many of whom he wouldn't even talk to--we just had a better understanding of each other. Also, guys of my age have this practical working experience of r&b and blues in their music--and I'm talking about the blues blues, those down-home country blues. That's something that has always helped me, which a lot of guys don't get nowadays. We came up when all of that was going on. It's like a drummer being born in New Orleans. Because those guys hear a lot of different music, and there's a whole variety of different things going on, they can play in a whole lot of different ways."
Which is part of what made Jimmy's long stints throughout the Sixties and Seventies with the Wynton Kelly Trio and Sarah Vaughan so satisfying, and what fuels his aspirations for Cobb's Mob on Milestone Records, above and beyond the good grooving of Cobb's Groove. "I would like to do a whole lot of things. When I was with Sarah, we had a small band thing, we had a trio thing, we had a big band thing, and we had a symphony orchestra thing--and the variety of that was really nice. I hope this band gets a chance to stretch out and express itself in a variety of different contexts."