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Posts tagged ‘Bill Evans’

Jimmy Cobb 1929-2020

Jimmy Cobb

Jimmy Cobb swung. That’s what he did, with a poise and a grace inherited from Kenny Clarke. He died from lung cancer in New York City on Sunday, aged 91, the last survivor of the seven musicians who played on Kind of Blue. The cymbal splash — however inadvertently and uncharacteristically heavy — that launched Miles Davis into his solo on “So What” seemed to open not only the album but a whole new world of feeling.

Drummers are praised for having “good time”, meaning they keep the beat steady. Of course Cobb had good time. Like his unshowy finesse, it was a quality that served him well throughout a long career. Great singers (including Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan) and soloists loved him for it. But Cobb was also a drummer who knew that time wasn’t a static thing, tied to a metronome.

I first noticed that when listening to the old bootlegs of the Davis quintet’s tour of Europe in the spring of 1960, and particularly on various renderings of “So What”, which habitually stretched from the 9min 25sec of the previous year’s studio version to around a quarter of an hour. You couldn’t miss how the tune had been speeded up. In the studio, on March 2, 1959, it had been taken at a relaxed 35 bars per minute. By the time they played it for a TV show that April, with Wynton Kelly at the piano in place of Bill Evans, it had accelerated slightly to 38.

A year later, on concert stages across Europe, they were kicking off the tune around 20 bars per minute faster than the original. More important than that, however, it was ending up even faster. At the first show in Paris on March 21, over the course of 13 minutes, it went from a brisk 56 to 65 bars per minute. At both concerts in Stockholm the following night it went from 60 to 68.

Does this mean that Cobb wasn’t doing his job? Of course it doesn’t. He and the other four — Davis, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers — were doing what they needed to do. Doing what the music required. Doing what it took, in that moment, to swing. RIP, Mr Cobb.

* The photograph of Jimmy Cobb was taken by Ted Williams, whose work was collected in Jazz: The Iconic Images of Ted Williams, published by ACC Editions in 2016. The European concerts are on Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour, released in 2018.  Kind of Blue is in your collection.

The lost summer of Bill Evans

IntermissionIn How My Heart Sings, his fine biography of the great pianist Bill Evans, published in 1998, Peter Pettinger devotes only a handful of sentences to the months in the summer of 1961 following the death in a car accident of Scott LaFaro, the prodigiously gifted 25-year-old bassist in Evans’s trio. The fatal crash occurred late at night on a country road in upstate New York 10 days after the group had finished a lengthy and historic season at the Village Vanguard. So devasted was Evans that he did not play again for several months: a period in which he came second (behind Thelonious Monk) in the Down Beat critics’ poll, and third in the same magazine’s readers’ poll, which was won by Oscar Peterson. “I didn’t realise how it affected me straight away,” he told the critic Martin Williams. “Musically everything seemed to stop. I didn’t even play at home.”

In fact he retreated into the haven provided first by his brother, Harry Jr, in New York, and then by his father, Harry Sr, and mother, Mary, in Florida. There, his senses deadened by the tragedy and the sense of loss, he seems to have done little except play the odd game of golf with his father (a golf-course owner/manager)  as he waited for the anguish to recede. And it is this period that forms the subject of Intermission, a short novel by the young Welsh writer Owen Martell, just published in the UK by William Heinemann.

In probably the most daring fictionalisation/reimagining of a jazz musician’s life since Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, Martell views Evans’s period of withdrawal through the eyes of Harry Jr, Mary, and Harry Sr, interleaving memories of the pianist’s childhood in New Jersey with his relatives’ anxious, half-comprehending attempts to cushion the grief of a man whose distance from their world was exacerbated by the heroin addiction that began three years earlier during his time with the Miles Davis Sextet (a period during which he made a pivotal contribution to Kind of Blue) and would remain with him, on and off, until his death in 1980 at the age of 51. Evans slips in and out of the narrative like a ghost through unlit rooms: even to his family he is a fugitive figure, forever glimpsed sidelong and in shadow.

Martell, whose two previous novels were in the Welsh language, may have come to his subject through their common ethnicity: the pianist’s paternal ancestors were from Wales (his mother was born to immigrants from Ukraine). Occasionally the prose strains too hard for poetic effect but mostly it is suitably limpid and measured, while the author’s approach is consistently respectful of the self-appointed task of inventing the thoughts of real people. Sometimes the cadences recall those of Cormac McCarthy — particularly in the habit of concluding a paragraph with a verbless sentence — but with, of course, a far gentler attack.

A word should be spared for the elegant cover, by Suzanne Dean, which appropriates the format of Reid Miles’s design for the jacket of Freddie Hubbard’s 1962 Blue Note LP Hub Tones, applying it to a New York street photograph by the late Esther Bubley. It matches the tone of a quiet, perceptive study of a musician whose masterpieces exacted a cruel price.