In a sense, every jazz performance is a tribute to one –or more likely many — jazz greats. We Four: Celebrating John Coltrane, the collaboration between drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxophonist Javon Jackson, bassist Nat Reeves and, for this appearance, pianist Eric Reed that appeared Saturday at Vanessie’s in Santa Fe, was as much a tribute to the talents of these four established jazz artists as it was to the concert’s namesake. Produced by the Friends of Santa Fe Jazz, the scintillating show was a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
In a single, glowing set of music written and/or associated with saxophone innovator who died in 1967, the group assimilated jazz past to showcase its present. The four-decades difference in the musicians’ ages—Cobb is 82 and Reed 42 – figured for little.
Cobb’s long experience with everyone from Earl Bostic and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Coltrane himself meshed perfectly with the influences of his younger cohorts who hail from a generation that has integrated the instrumental and expressionistic advances pioneered by the drummer’s then contemporaries. To Jackson, Reed and Reeves, the startling musical breakthroughs made by Coltrane, Davis and their sidemen are now second-nature. Together, age be damned, the four men demonstrated how the music continues to build on those foundations.
Miles and Coltrane weren’t the only spirit hovering nearby. The presence of Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans, among others, was palpable, both in the music and in Jackson’s between-tune talks.
The nine tunes aired here avoided Coltrane’s radical, avant-garde style of the mid-‘60s, concentrating instead on his post-bop and romantic explorations. By default, the band also gave a nod to trumpeter Davis’ landmark Kind Of Blue recording of 1959, a disc that included Coltrane and drummer Cobb, the last surviving member of that famous septet.
Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader” from that recording (notably, as Jackson pointed out, the best selling jazz recording of all time) made for a direct link to that period as well as pointing out a half-century of evolution. Cobb, dressed to work in blue collar, black suspenders and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration-logo ball cap, propelled the tune with varied rhythmic accents and off-beat spacing that moved beyond his straight-ahead timekeeping of some 50 years past. Reed made a nod to Kind of Blue pianist Evans’ original lines as he began his solo, then brought strong blues touches that gave gritty counterpoint to Evans’ more reserved play. Jackson, following Reed’s bluesy example, sounded more Cannonball than Coltrane.
Jackson, recalling Coltrane’s recognizable tenor attack at various times during the evening, mostly played his own man. His tone was somewhat softer than the celebration’s namesake and the references he made to the saxophonist’s signature phrases always came with an asterisk. At one point during his solo on “Naima,” he dwelled on Coltrane’s trademark, repeated four-and-six tone warbles but left pregnant space between, giving them time to sink in, before placing the next series at an unexpected interval. On Coltrane’s “Like Sonny,” he looked more towards Rollins in narrative flow and resolution. On “My One and Only Love,” he was warm and personal in ways like no other saxophonist but himself.
Reed likewise eschewed imitation for genuine identity. He never once sounded like longtime Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner and little like Wynton Kelly. His graceful play did sometimes suggest Coltrane-associated pianist Red Garland when it veered into harmonically dense blues lines. On Monk’s “I Mean You,” Reed’s smooth and flowing sound was far removed from the herky-jerky attractions of the tune’s composer.
Cobb participated in the 1959 take of Coltrane’s “Naima” heard on the saxophonist’s landmark Giant Steps recording. Its presentation here, with bassist Reeves’ spare and studious backing, gave the audience another chance to hear how the drummer’s play, now more percussively varied and responsive to the others in the band, had changed over a half-century.
Like all great art, this performance had a takeaway that transcended the actual music; that we should all aspire to be like Jimmy Cobb, a man who’s never stopped growing, who’s never stopped working to perfect his music. Giant strides, as Cobb’s career shows, result from persistent and continual smaller steps that keep pushing ahead. His example gives us hope, not only for the future of jazz, but our own as well.–Cabbage Rabbit