Jazz Up Your Holiday Season
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After 50 years, 'Kind of Blue' is still a classic. And Miles lives.
Publication: Philadelphia Daily News
Author: Shaun Brady
LIKE SO MANY occasions that turn out to be momentous in hindsight, the recording of Miles Davis’ landmark “Kind of Blue” album carried no special aura, no hint of the iconic future in store. “I just figured it was another good Miles Davis record,” shrugged drummer Jimmy Cobb.
“Just one that I happened to be on.”
It hardly needs to be said that Cobb’s impression is a vast understatement. In the 50 years since its release, “Kind of Blue” has come to be regarded as a landmark, the pinnacle not only of Davis’ output but perhaps of jazz itself. It’s almost certainly the best-selling jazz album of all time, and it has a place in the record collection of many a listener who would otherwise profess to a dislike of jazz.
From the opening strains of “So What,” with its instantly memorable refrain, through the crystalline warmth of “Flamenco Sketches,” the album’s every note becomes etched into the brain. Its lineup is unparalleled, with Davis accompanied by Cobb and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, pianist Bill Evans and bassist Paul Chambers. The word “supergroup” would hardly suffice.
“Every solo on the record’s a classic, and every tune on the record’s a classic,” said trumpeter Randy Brecker.
“If you’re not into jazz,” according to saxophonist Bobby Watson, “it’s a great entry into the music because of the mood that it creates. And if you’re really into jazz, it’s a great record because of the mood that it creates.”
Cobb is the only musician still living who played on the two 1959 sessions that comprise “Kind of Blue,” and is paying a rare visit to Philadelphia to open the Kimmel Center’s season-long tribute to the album’s 50th anniversary.
Pianist Danilo Perez, artistic adviser of the Kimmel’s Jazz Up Close series since 2002, has chosen an artist to represent and honor each of the original’s instruments: Brecker for Miles Davis, Watson for Adderley and Coltrane, Fred Hersch for Evans and Wynton Kelly, John Patitucci and Rufus Reid for Chambers, and, of course, Cobb.
“I’m the only one left to talk about it,” Cobb lamented from his Harlem home, adding, with a laugh, “otherwise you’d probably be talking to Miles or Julian, who was a very articulate speaker - anybody else but me.”
Despite his humility, Cobb has his own story to tell. Born in 1929, Cobb had already worked with vocalist Dinah Washington and saxophonist Earl Bostic when he first shared the stage with Davis and Charlie Parker, in an all-star band assembled by New York disc jockey Symphony Sid. It was years later that he actually joined Davis’ band, and worked with the trumpeter from 1957 to 1963.
He’s worked steadily since with a cross-generational who’s-who of jazz stars, but Cobb’s name will forever be linked with “Kind of Blue” - which doesn’t bother him a bit. “It’s very prestigious to be on an album like that,” he said. “When I think about the fact that this record sold more than anybody, and that means everybody - Louis Armstrong, Trane, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Tommy Dorsey - it’s amazing.”
Amazing, perhaps, to someone who performed on the record, but not so much for those who have lived and performed under its influence. Bobby Watson first encountered the album in college in the early 1970s, and thought it was “the hippest thing I ever heard.”
“That record epitomizes what a great record should be,” he said. “You cannot be a jazz musician and not study that record. Everybody was submissive to the moment and maintained the mood. They all came together, left their egos on the doorstep and brought their musicianship and their artistry to the date. It’s a great example of serving the music.”
Though Randy Brecker has certainly achieved his own recognition and fame over a long and varied career, the Philly-born trumpeter still sees representing Miles Davis as a formidable task.
“Miles was an undeniable influence,” he said from his hotel room in Berlin, where he was touring with guitarist Mike Stern. “I still listen to him a lot, and his influence is more pervasive as time goes on, which is what I think is unusual about him. He was not only far ahead of his time, but so courageous in moving forward and crossing genres and idioms. His whole life was dedicated to music and art, and I’m honored to be in this position.”
Brecker was fortunate enough to have seen Davis’ group at around the time of “Kind of Blue,” accompanying his father to the Showboat, on Broad Street, and the Red Hill Inn, in Pennsauken. Brecker finally met Davis in the 1970s when he and saxophonist brother, Michael, then teaming together in the electric band Dreams, in which Randy played his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal, operated the Seventh Avenue South club in Manhattan. But Brecker’s initial approach was rebuffed by the notoriously asocial trumpet legend.
“When I introduced myself he didn’t respond,” Brecker recalled. “He just looked right through me with his shades on. But a couple hours later, I was nursing my wounds with a double martini in the bar and I felt a wisp of air on my ear. It was Miles, and he whispered in my ear, ‘I love my wah-wah. Do you love your wah-wah?’ and then split.”
Brecker sees his current group, an acoustic quintet featuring his wife, Ada Rovatti, on saxophone, as being in the tradition of Davis’ early acoustic groups, with a funk influence paralleling the later electric experiments. “The band can be enjoyed on many levels. You don’t have to be knowledgeable about music - it communicates on a real simple level, but it also communicates to musicians that know about form. Similarly, people that don’t know anything about music like ‘Kind of Blue’ because it’s a pretty sounding record. It’s really easy to listen to, but if you want to get into it deeply, it’s also amazing because the solos are technically and harmonically superior. “
Sitting in a room lined with photos from the “Kind of Blue” sessions, Jimmy Cobb is constantly reminded of his involvement, but readily reflects that at the time it was just another record date. “It sounded really good to me, but most Miles records sounded good to me,” he says. “There was no way in the world that I could have known that 50 years later it would still be sounding good to me, and a whole lot of other people.
“I guess I was the right person at the right place at the right time.”