2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the recording of the seminal jazz album from Miles Davis: Kind of Blue. In celebration of this anniversary, drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only surviving member of the sextet, is touring with his appropriately named, So What Band, and is performing the entire Kind of Blue album.
Last night, I saw Cobb and his sextet perform two complete album sets at Yoshi's in Oakland, California. The elder statesman Cobb, was joined by Wallace Roney on trumpet, Javon Jackson on tenor sax, Vincent Herring on alto sax, Larry Willis on Piano, and John Webber (filling in for Buster Williams due to illness) on bass.
The band took the stage at Yoshi's, an intimate club with great acoustics, that seats only several hundred people. I was lucky enough to get a seat at a center table in the second row, less than ten feet from the stage. As soon as the first piano notes were struck, followed by the signature bass line of So What, I knew I was in for a treat.
How many times have you sat in your living room, closed your eyes, and imagined being with the players at 30th Street Studio, New York, during these recording sessions? Miles in the center on trumpet, Paul Chambers behind him on bass, Bill Evans/Wynton Kelly( piano) and Cannonball Adderley(alto sax) to the left, and Jimmy Cobb (drums) and John Coltrane (tenor sax) to the right.
Last night, I suspect I came as close as I ever will to having the proverbial time machine back to 1959. Each of the players in Cobb's current band occupied the same place on the stage as the original musicians as heard on the original stereo recording.
Sitting front and center at Yoshi's not only afforded me a better view of the players, but also allowed me to hear each individual instrument acoustically, within its original space. Farther back in the club, one hears the music coming from loudspeakers, which can destroy the sense of space and soundstage that makes the show so intimate for those in the front.
As for the performance, the band played the entire album from start to finish, without a break. They played it pretty much straight--the only change I noticed was that during the first set, Herring (on alto) took the first sax solo on Flamenco Sketches--while on the album, Coltrane (on tenor ) goes first. During the second set, Jackson (on tenor), took the first solo, in keeping with the original version of the song.
Jimmy Cobb with Miles Davis
Jimmy Cobb, now nearly eighty, but looking twenty years younger, played the set just like he did on the record. Never flashy, he used both sticks and brushes, and still works the cymbals with the greatest finesse, his signature touch never escaping the listener during softer ballads such as Blue in Green and Flamenco Sketches.
Wallace Roney, dressed in a gold jacket and wearing sunglasses, assumed the cool demeanor of Miles Davis, and seemed to be channeling him for much of the performance. While not pitch-perfect on every note, he conveyed both Miles' vibe and tone for much of his performance.
Javon Jackson on tenor, turned in a workman-like performance, sounding a bit measured and tentative in the first set, but allowing himself to stretch out a bit more in the later set. John Webber, a last minute replacement for bassist Buster Williams, delivered a strong performance, never standing out, but nailing the oh-so-mandatory opening theme of So What--and once he accomplished that, his night was a success.
Vincent Herring was the surprise standout of the evening. With a smooth, uncharacteristically buttery alto tone, and ebullient phrasing in the style of Cannonball Adderley, Herring stole the show more than once, tightly rattling off many of Cannonball's signature lines and improvising beyond, but never straying too far during any given number.
John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans at 30th Street Studio
The only player who at times seemed out of place was pianist Larry Willis. For the original Kind of Blue sessions, which took place on two nights in 1959, Bill Evans played on all but one of the numbers. His moody, introspective style was a great match for the mostly spartan modal compositions and cool mood that Miles was hoping to achieve on the record.
However, Wynton Kelly also showed up for the first date, and as promised, Miles had him play on one number that night: Freddie Freeloader. In contrast with much of the rest of the album, Kelly's playing on that number has a lighter, more sprightly style compared to the style employed by Evans.
Willis is definitely more in the mold of a Wynton Kelly than a Bill Evans, but at times, he employed such a heavy hand, that his playing just wasn't in keeping with the overall mood of the record. That said, there were other times he did employ appropriate restraint. During Blue in Green, for example, he set the mood perfectly for the beautifully simple, introspective piece, never venturing beyond the graceful touch required by the composition.
Miles Davis with Bill Evans at 30th Street Studio
Other than seeing and hearing the wonderful playing of Jimmy Cobb himself, the highlight of the night at Yoshi's may have been hearing some of the ensemble playing and harmonies of the three horns together. During the intro to Freddie Freeloader, for example, all three horns are up front, playing at the same time, and you can finally see and hear who is playing what on this amazing record.
Jimmy Cobb and his band will be playing dates throughout the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe throughout this year and into early 2010. If you have a chance to see them, especially in a smaller venue, I would highly recommend doing so. This is the closest you will ever get to going back to 1959, and may very well be one of your last chances to see Jimmy Cobb.
One more thing. Audiophiles often judge their systems by how well they can approximate a live event. These performances by the So What Band are a bit of a unique opportunity, in that their performances mirror so closely what is heard on the record. Close your eyes at the show and try to remember what you hear. When you get home, put on your favorite Kind of Blue stereo pressing, again closing your eyes. How close is what you are hearing to what you heard in the club?
For more information on the tour, click here:
For my review of the Kind of Blue 50th Anniversary boxset, click here: http://myvinylreview.blogspot.com/2009/01/welcome-to-myvinylreview.html
Myvinylreview recommends the Classic Records 200 gram stereo edition as the best vinyl pressing of Kind of Blue currently available: