He knew a great player when he heard one.
Among other attributes, Miles Davis was one of the great talent scouts in the history of jazz, assembling a series of distinct (and distinctly great) bands over the decades that were filled with young players just emerging into stardom. When he died in 1991, he left behind an alumni roll filled with some of the most influential players in the music.
The dean of that group nowadays is drummer Jimmy Cobb, the sole surviving veteran of the group that recorded Davis’s 1959 masterpiece “Kind of Blue,” almost certainly the most popular jazz album ever made.
So when Cobb anchors a group of fellow Davis alumni, dedicated to revisiting the work of their old boss, well, this isn’t exactly your typical tribute band.
Cobb pulls no punches when asked what Miles was up to back then that made him so special.
“Well, back in those days Miles had the best jazz band in the world. So that’s what he was up to,” the drummer says in a telephone interview. “He was just trying to be what he was, what he had gotten to be.”
Cobb sits in the drum chair of the quartet dubbed Four Generations of Miles Davis, which plays the Regattabar on Friday and Saturday. He’s joined by guitarist Mike Stern, who first worked with Davis on the 1981 album “The Man With the Horn,” the trumpeter’s return to the scene from a sabbatical of more than five years; saxophonist Sonny Fortune, who played with Davis’ thundering fusion ensemble in 1974-75; and Buster Williams, who temporarily took bass duties for a few weeks in 1967, subbing into arguably Davis’s greatest-ever quintet.
For this gig, the four musicians are united by their sideman tenures with the brilliant, enigmatic, sometimes-confounding trumpeter. But each has since built his own body of work as a leader, making contributions that stand on their own.
“Anyone that has known me will attest to the fact I’ve said through the years that I’ve developed my rhythm through listening to Elvin Jones and Jimmy Cobb,” Fortune says, citing the drummer best known for his work with John Coltrane in addition to his current bandmate. “Talking about Buster Williams and Jimmy Cobb, I’m playing with two of the last, in my judgment, originals in the jazz world in terms of a sound that’s identified with them exclusively. I personally think it is probably the last of the unique rhythm sections in the jazz world, that I know of.”
These players’ tenures with their old bandleader span a large portion of Davis’s artistic evolution. But Four Generations of Miles Davis focuses on one era—the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Cobb was in the band. This makes sense given Cobb’s stature, but also because of the nature of the repertoire then—standards like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “ ’Round Midnight,” not to mention favorites from “Kind of Blue” like “So What”—which any players at this level likely have long since learned backward and forward.
But this quartet doesn’t seem bent on re-creating past magic. For one thing, there’s no trumpeter or keyboardist on hand. And Davis fans who are more familiar with, say, Fortune’s screaming solos on live albums like “Pangaea” and “Agharta” will hear his touch here in a completely different context.
By the time Fortune was on board, Davis was known for launching extensive jams with a curtly articulated riff or theme, and then letting something as simple as a repeated bass figure glue together the thrashing, funky, wildly loose excursions to come. (Stern’s era had some more structure to it.) The resulting sound could hardly be further from the clean, deeply swinging essays of Cobb’s day, including key collaborations with arranger Gil Evans like “Porgy and Bess” and “Sketches of Spain.”
But Fortune says he and Stern slip in some of that loose sensibility, spontaneously devising themes to improvise on as segues between numbers. By the same token, this is a chance for the latter-day Davis collaborators to dig into the harmonically advanced material that was not in the repertoire when they were on board.
Given the conceptual, “project” feel of the group, it’s ironic that one comment it makes on Miles Davis is his flair for putting together bands made up of unique musical personalities, who jelled into a distinct unit.
“Everybody was supportive,” Williams says of Davis and his other sidemen, “and the music was the direction. The music was the dictator and we all spoke the same language.”
This project may amount mainly to a chance for great players of different generations to get together and swing on familiar material. But the music it makes should demonstrate that Cobb, Williams, Fortune and Stern are connected by more than an item on their resumes.Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.