By Joel Francis
Jimmy Cobb had been onstage at the Gem Theater for over an hour Saturday night before he finally gave the capacity crowd what they came for: a drum solo.
As the last living musician from the landmark Miles Davis sessions for “Kind of Blue,” Cobb would have deserved an ovation regardless of what he played. The taught and thunderous riffs that snapped from his 80-year-old wrists would have been impressive from someone half Cobb’s age.
All year Cobb and his sextet, dubbed the So What Band, have toured the world celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Kind of Blue.” Since Cobb is the last living musician from those sessions, it’s a noble gesture and fantastic marketing, but the execution could have been deadly. Play it too close to the original and you end up with paint-by-numbers Davis and John Coltrane. Improvise too much and the music not only loses its spirit, but the evening seems like a gimmick.
Fortunately, the band played it down the middle, playing homage without slavish dedication. As the trumpet player, Wallace Roney had the greatest cross to bear. While not emulating Davis, Roney’s similar moody tone and posture made comparisons inevitable. Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson seemed hesitant and overwhelmed at times in his role filling Coltrane’s shoes but overall added a strong voice to the night.
As the stand-in for the lesser-known Cannonball Adderly, alto sax player Vincent Herring had the most flexibility. Herring took advantage by chipping in adventurous solos that varied the textures laid by Roney and Jackson. Pianist Larry Willis was the ensemble’s hero, vamping on the chords behind the soloists with flourish and relishing every turn in the spotlight.
The band whipped through “Kind of Blue” in order, extending the original LP’s run time by about a half hour. “So What” started at an aggressive tempo accentuated by Roney’s angry solo that made “Freddie Freeloader” seem almost jovial in contrast.
Willis opened “Blue In Green” with a tremendous solo before Roney took over. The melancholy number was made even more poignant by the way Roney whipped away from the mic after his solo, leaving before the note was finished and before any resolution.
Since there was no drum solo on “Kind of Blue,” the band added “The Theme,” a piece from Davis’ period on the Prestige label, as a showcase for Cobb. He took another brief solo during “Four,” the joyous victory lap of an encore.
After striking the right tone, the ensemble had carte blanche with the rapturous crowd. The musicians were speaking through an established vocabulary with the emphasis on the right syllables. There would be no funk breakdowns, hip hop remixes or hard rock power chords. While the conservative approach often cuts against the genre’s best interests, Saturday night it sounded magnificent.
Setlist: So What, Freddie Freeloader, Blue In Green, All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, The Theme. Encore: Four.