Joyce Cobb’s musical journey has taken its fair share of twists and turns, but the multifaceted singer is hardly finished adding new chapters to her story at this point.
After beginning her professional calling with the distinction of being signed by Stax during its heyday, she proceeded on to a career that includes highlights such as charting in the Top 40 with a record on the famed Cream label (later Hi Records), and touring internationally with household names like The Temptations, Muddy Waters, and Al Jarreau. For many artists these sort of experiences might have been enough, but despite such early success, Joyce has never stopped to dwell on the past, instead adopting fresh approaches to her seemingly limitless talents.
Raised in her grandmother’s church choir, Cobb later left Nashville for a chance to sing down the road in the Home of the Blues. Upon arriving in Memphis, Stax wasted no time inking her to a deal, setting in motion a whirlwind of events. At a time when Soulsville, USA was pumping out hit after hit, Joyce began incorporating her love of jazz recordings into her soulful styled singing, creating a distinct division in her sound from most vocalists who relied more on bluesy power than styled refinement. Somewhat ironically though, as worldwide travel increasingly became a requirement of her blossoming performance career, she began to find herself more deeply rooted into the ever-expanding traditions back in the Bluff City.
In a place boasting marquee names as B.B., Rufus, Elvis, and Isaac, Cobb soon became one of the foremost ladies in a music scene that had produced few notable female vocalists outside of Memphis Minnie and Carla Thomas. That fact never fazed her though, as she was more than comfortable in what had become a melting pot for the southern soul, rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz she loved. Rather, Memphis became a platform for countless projects outside of her recording career: she owned and performed in her own Beale Street nightclub, received recognition for one-person stage plays at Theater Memphis, taught jazz vocals at the University of Memphis School of Music, and still continues to host her famous Sunday jazz brunches in midtown. And though the love for her adopted hometown remains steadfast, Cobb anxiously anticipates stepping out this year with a new jazz project, her first album with independent Memphis label Archer Records.
Joining her will be Memphis-by-way-of-New York pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, who, like Cobb, has never been one to sit idly around. In fact, at present Stevens heads or plays a part in a number of jazz ensembles across the country, having played on 62 released albums during his career. In addition, he was recently honored with an induction into the prestigious and diverse company of Steinway Artists, including past legends like Irving Berlin and Cy Coleman, as well as modern players such as Billy Joel and Harry Connick, Jr. When not busy juggling one of his many projects, Stevens often gives solo jazz salon performances and leads various instructional series (a current series focused on the 70s era electric fusion of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, et al).
Not long after moving to Memphis Stevens was contacted by local upright bassist Jonathan Wires, and the two instantly formed a playing partnership that grew to eventually include drummer Renardo Ward, well known around town for his session work. After hearing Joyce perform, Stevens felt that her dynamic style and singular intonation would be the perfect foil for his newfound trio. “I have a few places in Europe I always like to play,” mused Stevens, “and I knew these folks would fall in love with Joyce. It made perfect sense.” With the members solidified, Archer Records signed the group in late August 2009 before welcoming them into the midtown Memphis label’s Music + Arts studio. To ensure the best sound possible, Archer arranged a Steinway D for Stevens, and the September 21-24 sessions, which were recorded to magnetic tape, reflect the classic richness and warmth of sound that will recall smoldering Dinah Washington and Billy Holliday LPs.
On their resultant self-titled album Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio, Stevens leads the rhythm section in deftly complementing Cobb’s full range of honey sweet vocals with carefully composed peaks and valleys. Beginning with the distressed album-opening “Moanin’,” they collectively deliver 12 tales that ebb and flow as a dialogue between enflamed passions and desperate solitude. Drawing on her own uniquely developed mixture of silky jazz and aching soul, Cobb scours the depths of cheerless heartache (“It’s Over Now”) and profound longing (“If You Never Come to Me”), before illuminating the heights of hopeful anticipation (“Jitterbug Waltz”) and unwavering love (“My Heart Belongs to Daddy”, “If You Know Love”). Throughout, Stevens provides vibrantly articulated and lyrical solos, as Wires and Ward glide naturally between moods and tempos with remarkable ease and style. The outcome is a magnificently crafted album coursing with life and full of delicate flourishes resulting from an incredible understanding between the full-bodied musical personalities of Cobb and Stevens.
Look for Joyce Cobb with the Michael Jefry Stevens Trio online and in stores. The group completed a successful European tour in Switzerland, Austria and Germany in October 2010 and are planning to return in 2012. Project photos, audio samples, and more, are available here on the Archer Records site or the Michael Jefry Stevens homepage at michaeljefrystevens.com.