In the pantheon of late-1950s master jazz drummers, Philly Joe Jones had rudimental brilliance; Art Taylor an immaculate sense of time-feel burn; Elvin Jones, combustible triplet ferociousness; Roy Haynes, intellectual brilliance; and Shelly Manne, musical inventiveness. But when it came to pure, solid swing feel as deep and wide as the ocean, no one matched Jimmy Cobb.
Miles Davis’s drummer of choice on the iconic Kind of Blue album, Jimmy Cobb also recorded the Miles classics Jazz at the Plaza, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, and six others. In fact, Cobb is one of the most recorded drummers of the classic-jazz era, including albums with Cannonball and Nat Adderley, John Coltrane, Wynton Kelly, Wes Montgomery, Bobby Timmons, Art Pepper, and Pepper Adams.
The soul survivor (and we do mean “soul”) of 1959’s Kind of Blue sessions, Cobb has also recorded eighteen albums as a leader, including 2019’s This I Dig of You and Remembering U.
Now, as then, Cobb’s time mastery is a thing of beauty, a large, swinging groove pendulum that has influenced everyone from Kenny Washington and Lewis Nash to Jeff Hamilton and Bill Stewart. Cobb simply knows how to make a tune feel good, his powerful brush work and wide swinging ride-cymbal beat the very essence of jazz time-keeping. We sat with the legend to discuss some of his most iconic recordings, including tracks from his two recently released albums as a leader.
“Pistachio,” Jimmy Cobb, Remembering U (2019)
Opening with a reverse toms–to–snare fill, “Pistachio” courses a breezy line between Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms, a reminder of the era when drummers were expected to cover drumset and percussion rhythms all at once. “That’s a kind of a mambo,” Cobb says. “My interpretation of Afro-Cuban rhythms was influenced by the drummers I came up with, guys like Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Shelly Manne.”
“Composition 101,” Jimmy Cobb, Remembering U
Here, Cobb performs Afro-Cuban punctuations within a straight-ahead swinging time feel until he hits the solo sections, clearing the way for pure swing-feel beauty with his typically massive ride cymbal beat. “It’s a little bit Afro-Cuban and swing feeling up to the solos,” he explains. “When I came up, a lot of that was going on. I inherited it. The right hand is doing a rhythm on the cymbal, and the left is hitting accents on the snare drum. ‘Composition 101’ is my composition.”
“Willow Weep for Me,” Jimmy Cobb, Remembering U
Slow tempos that aren’t necessarily ballads were once common in jazz, but have all but disappeared. “Willow Weep for Me” inches it way forward, with accompaniment by late trumpeter Roy Hargrove. “When I was first coming up, it was all about playing slow tempos,” says Cobb. “The older guys who played slow tempos would say, ‘Make sure you keep the tempo, and make sure it’s swinging.’ You either have a feeling for it or you have to learn it. We didn’t practice tempos with a metronome, because at that time metronomes didn’t keep good time. We’d try to stay away from metronomic time as much as possible. Think in 16ths or, a slow three, or whatever it takes to get you there. Art Blakey and Max Roach could play really slow tempos.”
“Cheese Cake,” Jimmy Cobb, This I Dig of You (2019)
A tumbling mini drum solo introduces the song, followed by Cobb’s punchy time accompanying his quartet’s springboard performance. It’s classic Cobb, from popping snare drum accents to a resonant ride cymbal conveying a Mercedes-classy time feel. Cobb trades fours with the group at midpoint, then plays a full solo featuring drumset blasts impressive for a man who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday.
“Full House,” Jimmy Cobb, This I Dig of You
Playing an Afro-Cuban beat—right hand percolating on the snare drum rim, left executing tom accents—Cobb revisits the renowned Wes Montgomery original he first recorded with the guitar master on the 1962 album of the same name. “The first time I really played Afro-Cuban was with Wes Montgomery,” says Cobb. “I met Wes the day after I left Miles Davis’s band. We recorded Boss Guitar that day [in 1962]. He wrote a little form for me to follow to go with what he was playing on ‘Full House.’ But it’s in 3/4.”
“Old Devil Moon,” Jimmy Cobb, The Original Mob (2015)
On this bubbling Afro-Cuban groove played with the snares off , Cobb’s timbale-like jabs and pops underpin his immense ride cymbal pulse. “Back in the old days,” he recalls, “I had an 18″ cymbal and 13″ hi-hats on the left side, and a 20″ A or K Zildjian ride on the right. I place the stick bead a quarter way up to the middle of the cymbal, according to the sound I want. I play near the bell if I’m playing with the bass drum, or with a bass solo. To play straight four on the ride cymbal with no accent, you have to concentrate. If you want it to sound like four you have to play it like four.”
“Lickety Split,” Jimmy Cobb, The Original Mob
Cobb can still play blisteringly fast tempos, as heard here. “You get to a place where you can handle the fast tempos,” he says. “You do whatever you think is needed to handle that tempo through a whole tune. Sometimes I kind of make it a dance, like Roy Haynes does. Instead of playing just straight time, make it dance.”
“So What,” Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1959)
On this, one of the most popular of all jazz standards, the musicians state the melody, then at the precise moment Miles’ trumpet solo begins, Cobb wallops a crash cymbal, opening the way for the solos that follow. “That was a mistake!” Jimmy reveals. “I hit it and I thought it was too much for the room. The engineer let it ring but lowered the volume in the booth. Everybody asks me about that. Miles liked it. Sometimes Miles would ask me to play a note on the snare drum on 2 or 4 on certain tunes, otherwise he let me do my thing.”
“Straight, No Chaser,” the Miles Davis Sextet, Jazz at the Plaza (1958)
Another great jazz standard, composed by Thelonious Monk, this live version of “Straight, No Chaser” recorded at New York City’s Plaza Hotel is like a white-hot bolt of liquid lightning. Miles’ finger snaps count in the tune, followed by him, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley reciting the melody in unison. Miles’ solo takes off, supported by one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz history: Cobb, pianist Bill Evans, and bassist Paul Chambers. Chambers and Cobb maintain a relentless, high-flying tempo throughout, giving each solo a wide flight path.
We took the opportunity to ask Cobb how Chambers compares to another master Miles Davis group bassist, Ron Carter. “Ron was trying to feel the time where Paul was feeling it—most bass players are,” he says. “[But] Paul had something extra, a gift. The Lord gives something extra to some people; they don’t even have to try. He had perfect time.
“I worked at trying to stay in the pocket,” Cobb says. “I just listened to people that I liked doing it, keeping time, and tried to emulate that. Kenny Clarke had it—and some guys I met on the road, even rock ’n’ roll drummers who had a good beat.”
“Oleo,” the Miles Davis Sextet, Jazz at the Plaza
Sonny Rollins’ composition is given a dry, torrid treatment here, the rhythm section playing with searing drive and purpose. The beginning of each solo is marked by a sparse approach: Chambers walking bass line and Cobb’s simple accent of 1 and 3 on the hi-hat, before he joins Chambers in attacking the tempo. “I’m playing 1 and 3 on the hi-hat ’til it gets to the middle,” says Cobb, “then I play time. I’d heard Philly Joe do that.”
Jimmy Cobb plays Pearl drums and Zildjian cymbals and uses Remo heads and Vater signature sticks and brushes.