The making of the album: Joyce Cobb and Michael Jefry Stevens in the studio
I’d never claim to be a jazz expert, so when I listen to a singer who’s been filed in that particular section, it’s as the eternal novice. As with the work of a painter or a sculptor, my response is always visceral. I like it instantly or I don’t. Very occasionally, something grows on me after several plays or over the course of a set at a gig. But usually, it’s that first reaction that sticks. I’ll leave the hardcore analysis to the genre’s aficionados.
So what was my first reaction to Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio? Aside from the fact that it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue as an album title, I was hooked. “Right, here we go,” says Joyce Cobb , one of Memphis’s finest exports, at the start, launching into a harmonica intro to “Moanin’” before unleashing her warm, honeyed tones on the lyrics. It’s a potent combination that leaves you in doubt that you’re in the presence of an assured, class act.
Cobb might be billed as a jazz singer, but there is plenty of soul in her voice too. That means comparisons with Ella (coming through in Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”), Billie (whose ghost is surely hovering in “If You Know Love”) and Sarah are inevitable. She certainly doesn’t come up short in the bold phrasing or the way she takes the melody and unravels it like a fine thread of gold. She bends it and stretches it but never lets go of the line. That’s a singer’s singer for you. And in the company of Michael Jefry Stevens on the piano, with Jonathan Wires on the bass and Renardo Ward on drums, she has precisely the framework she needs to work some intriguing magic with this set of standards. And comparisons aside, what comes across most clearly is the art of Cobb herself, in absolute command of every song, serene and completely comfortable within the music. Her voice is a prism of shifting moods and emotions.
There’s a beautifully restrained “Skylark”, with Stevens sublime on the piano, a playful “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” that banishes the threat of Earth Kitt-style outrageousness to the far reaches, and a lovely mash-up of the Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh ballad “I’m in the Mood for Love” with some new lyrics from James Moody. “If You Never Come to Me” has a breezy samba quality. Stevens lays on the atmosphere again at the start of the plaintive Jimmy van Heusen/Johnny Mercer number, “I Thought About You”. It’s Wires’ turn to shine with a spare accompaniment to Duke Ellington’s lament “Daydream”. By the time Cobb gets scatting – something, I’ll admit, I’ve always found an acquired taste – on Thelonious Monk’s “It’s Over Now (Well You Needn’t)”, she’s long since had us in the palm of her hand.
This is an album of considerable quality that rewards repeated listening, which is just as well for us here in the UK. In the absence of any London gigs from Cobb, we’ll have to make do with it for the time being.
Lucky readers in mainland Europe, however, can find her with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio on tour right now in the following cities: 5th October, Prague (Jazz Dock); 6th October, Graz, Austria (Stockwerk); 7th October, Vienna (Reigen-live); 8th October, Darmstadt, Germany (Knabenschule); 9th October, Luxemburg (L’Inoui Café); 10th October, Brussels (L’Archiduc); 11th October, Frankfurt (Jazz Keller); 12th October, Reutlingen (Artgallery Reutlingen); 13th October, Neustadt (Katakombe); 14th October, Paderborn (Jazz Club), 15th October, Lausanne (Chorus); 16th October, Chur, Switzerland (Jazz Club).