Most of the headlines about drummer James “Jimmy” Cobb — in the wake of his passing at 91 last week, and in the past, too — speak of his many appearances on Miles Davis and John Coltrane recordings, including Kind of Blue and Giant Steps.
Cobb’s work with those two titans earned him a spot in jazz history, but he was still writing his own story last year. His final album, This I Dig Of You, released on Smoke Sessions Records in 2019, featured the bristling guitar work of Peter Bernstein, a longtime member of Cobb’s quartet and his quintet, Cobb’s Mob. Cobb didn’t put a lot of his own albums out, but when he did, they almost always featured the electric guitar, rather than the trumpet or saxophone, as his most famous appearances might lead one to think. He didn’t release an album album under his own name until 1983, and when he did, it featured the swirling guitar of Steve Kuhn as the lead instrument. This is interesting, but it makes sense.
Cobb’s drumming was marked by an understated, electric cool which was often overlooked, but held heavy gravity in any context. After leaving the Davis sextet in the early ’60s, Cobb broke off into a trio with pianist Wynton Kelly which would do some of its finest work with guitarists Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. The joint Montgomery/Kelly album Smokin’ at the Half Note is essential guitar quartet music, with some of Montgomery’s most inspired, stripped-down, and bluesiest playing. Cobb went on to join Montgomery’s trio with organist Melvin Rhyne, which was featured on a number of award-winning albums on Riverside, the most notable being Boss Guitar, which contains a version of “Days of Wine and Roses” that’s instantly recognizable thanks to Cobb’s chilled-out, hushed brush playing, which is romantically grooving, the kind of thing you might hear in the hippest of hip coffee joints or wine bars, any day of the week. That album also includes “Fried Pies,” a chorus-after-chorus blues offering nearly seven minutes of blissful trio interplay, with Cobb constantly stirring the pot without letting it bubble over for a second. He had a knack for keeping the beat completely locked, but fluid. This is the kind of drumming that may feel like “background” or “backbeat,” but which is essential in any blues-based music. It makes sense that a hue of blues would color practically everything that the drummer on Kind of Blue played on, and there’s no more thoroughly blues instrument than the guitar.
While Cobb’s immediate post-Miles career was steeped heavily in sax and piano music, it seemed to be leading inexorably towards Montgomery’s driving blues-jazz. This trajectory likely influenced the drummer when he finally made the leap into leadership. He consistently hired guitarist Peter Bernstein for his Cobb’s Mobb band, as well as on This I Dig of You, as mentioned above. (Bernstein was also a member of Melvin Rhyne’s final trio, so the Wes Montgomery connection may have had something to do with it.) In 2001, Chesky Records put out Jazz In the Key of Blue, featuring Russell Malone’s warm, Jim Hall-ish playing in a pianoless quartet with the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove; there hasn’t been a drummer-led album since with such a presence given to the electric guitar, in such a romantic and classy way.
Always swinging even at breakneck tempos, Jimmy Cobb brought a relaxed fervor to the music. A mysterious, unmatchable blues stylist, his work has touched bodies and souls for many years, and he will be missed. However, there is still much to explore!
Wes Montgomery, Full House (Riverside, 1962)
Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane (New Jazz, 1962)
Wes Montgomery, Boss Guitar (Riverside, 1963)
Wynton Kelly Trio w/ Kenny Burrell, It’s All Right! (Riverside, 1964)
Wynton Kelly Trio w/Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ at the Half Note (Verve, 1965)
Wes Montgomery, The Genius of Wes Montgomery (Riverside Records, 1968)
Jimmy Cobb, So Nobody Else Can Hear (Contempo Vibrato, 1983)
Peter Bernstein, Somethin’s Burnin’ (Criss Cross Jazz, 1994)
George Coleman, Mike Stern, Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb, 4 Generations of Miles (Chesky Records, 2002)
Jimmy Cobb’s Mob, Cobb’s Groove (Milestone, 2003)
The Jimmy Cobb Quartet, Cobb’s Corner (Chesky Records, 2007)
Peter Bernstein Quartet, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2008)
Jimmy Cobb, The Original Mob (Smoke Sessions Records, 2014)
Jimmy Cobb, This I Dig of You (Smoke Sessions Records, 2019)