By Don Heckman
Northridge, CA. Jimmy Cobb showed up at the Valley Performing Arts Center last night, leading his “So What Band.” If the title sounds odd, consider this: Cobb is the last surviving member of the late ‘50s recording session that produced Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, the best selling jazz recording of all time. And one of the five pieces on that album was Davis’ “So What.”
For the past few years, Cobb has been touring his six piece “So What Band” with an instrumentation identical to that of the Davis band, performing selections from Kind of Blue. The current personnel includes trumpeter Christian Scott, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, tenor and soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Cobb.
Any sextet of competent jazz artists could bring the familiar arrangements of the Kind of Blue selections to life, as is occasionally done in collegiate jazz programs and at jazz festivals. But tribute bands and cover bands have been far more common in pop, rock and r&b than in jazz. Improvisational music demands something more than a note-for-note repetition of familiar melodies and rhythms. Much more was expected, obviously, from Cobb’s talented players. The real question was how much this particular group could, and would, do to transport such deeply familiar music into a creative, contemporary jazz expression.
To the credit of Cobb’s current “So What Band,” both the memorable sounds and the challenging inventiveness of the original Kind of Blue were largely present in Saturday night’s dynamic performance at VPAC.
Starting with “So What,” the Cobb players proceeded through the additional four tunes from the original album – “Freddie Freeloader,” “Blue In Green,” “All Blues” and “Flamenco Sketches,” adding “Green Dolphin Street,” another tune closely associated with Davis.
Scott (also known as Christian aTunde Adjuah) is one of the most gifted trumpeters of his generation. Faced with the challenging task of playing the Miles Davis role in the “So What Band,” he did so with utter conviction. Recalling the Davis sound whenever he played Harmon-muted trumpet into the microphone, frequently employing some of the phrases from the Davis riffs dialect, he nonetheless improvised impressively from his own creative perspective.
Herring and Liebman, taking the Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane roles, respectively, roved into even more unique improvisational territory. Herring found an especially amiable connection with the Adderley style.
Liebman, always eager to play out of the box, followed the Coltrane dictum of roving through the outer limits of saxophone sound and substance, producing one startling solo after another.
The rhythm section of Willis, Williams and Cobb tended to flow into the sort of groove chosen by the Kind of Blue rhythm players Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Cobb, rather than the more impressionistic style present when Bill Evans was in the piano chair. Nonetheless, Willis, Williams and Cobb (who played a climactic solo in the last moments of the performance) kept alive the timeless reality of this memorable music.
The primary complaint about the evening was not related to the playing. Suffice to say that the VPAC’s usual fine acoustics were somewhat offset by an audio mix that sounded more appropriate for a rock concert, with unnecessarily heavy bass reproduction and penetrating upper musical partials. In addition, one couldn’t help but wish that Cobb had said a few words about his participation in the original Kind of Blue.
But those are small carps about an otherwise completely intriguing musical evening.
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Four years ago, Jimmy Cobb and a different ”So What Band” appeared at the Playboy Jazz Festival. The week before the performance Cobb did a Q & A with iRoM offering his first person perspective on the history of “Kind of Blue,” from its original version to its “So What Band” incarnation. To read the Q & A with Cobb click HERE.