Monday, December 7, 2015


Drummer Jimmy Cobb
Minutes before the Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra played the first piece of their Sunday evening concert at the Carr Center in downtown Detroit, the Director of Jazz Studies at the University, bassist Rodney Whitaker, told the audience to fasten their seatbelts. 

Two choruses into the opener “Things to Come,” it was apparent why Whitaker wanted the audience to hold on. The MSU Jazz Orchestra, nicknamed the Be-bop Spartans, took the audience on a two-hour joyride through the backstreets of some well-known jazz classics. Guaranteed no soul left the Carr Center unconvinced the Be-bop Spartans are an elite collegiate jazz orchestra.

The Be-bop Spartans put everything on the line for each song they performed. Three songs into the set the orchestra was playing with such force and self-assurance, I thought they were competing for the Big Ten championship. The orchestra was under a lot of pressure given their special guest was the legendary jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb whose career in music spans five decades.

Cobb’s work history includes tenures with Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. At 86, Cobb is still putting out outstanding jazz records. Last year, Smoke Sessions Records released one of Cobb’s finest recordings “The Original Mob”.  The Be-bop Spartans had performed four songs before Cobb joined them. The first showstopper was the orchestra’s interpretation of Frank Foster’s “Blues Backstage”.

The orchestra had the bandstand sufficiently heated by the time Cobb joined in to play “Two Bass Hit,” “Straight No Chaser,” and “Giant Steps”. Cobb soloed beautifully on each number, showing that at his advanced age, he hasn’t lost one ounce of the piss-and-vinegar he possessed as a key figure on landmark jazz albums such as “Kind of Blue” and “Giant Steps”.

Cobb was why most of the audience attended the concert. But, I daresay the Spartans stole the show. Everybody was banking on Cobb tearing-the-roof-off-the sucker. What was shocking was how the Be-bop Spartans flourished in the midst of such genius and greatness. Over the years, this reviewer has heard many of Whitaker’s recruiting classes. This class, however, is his most exciting and gifted.  
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