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.