Fusing Cobham's worlds

A natural performer, talented jazz-fusion drummer Billy Cobham believes in playing his best and reaching out to people.

Billy Cobham 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Billy Cobham 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are artists whose personalities do not always shine through in their work, but Billy Cobham is not one of them.
The 67-year-old jazz-fusion drummer, an Americanbred Swiss resident, has been earning his crust by pounding the skins to mostly high-energy music for almost half a century, working with many of the titans of the fraternity en route. He is equally enthused and forthright when talking about his work.
Cobham is no stranger to these shores. He has played at the Red Sea Jazz Festival and at other prestigious venues around the country, but he will make his Israel Festival debut next month, at his June 18 show at the Jerusalem Theater. He is bringing along no fewer than five sidemen for the occasion, including Camelia Ben Naceur on keyboards, pianist-violinist Christophe Cravero, guitarist Jean-Marie Ecay and bass player Michael Mondesir, with Wilbert (Junior) Gill on steel pan and percussion.
The latter percussion supplement feeds directly off the sounds Cobham heard in his earliest years, in Panama, and later in New York, where his family moved when he was only three years old. Add to that the fact that Cobham had a number of cousins who not only played steel drums and congas, they also built their own instruments. You could say Cobham knew what he’d be doing for a living almost as soon as he was old enough to hit steel or skins.
Despite his Latin-seasoned roots, straight-ahead jazz was Cobham first avenue of artistic endeavor as a professional musician. He honed his skills in a US Army band in the mid-’60s before joining forces with veteran jazz pianist Horace Silver and sharpening his drumming chops even further through confluences with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, organist Shirley Scott and guitarist George Benson.
But Cobham found his natural musical groove when he branched into jazz fusion, incorporating elements of jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and funk. By the early ’70s he had performed and recorded with the acclaimed Brecker Brothers’ Dreams outfit and with British guitarist John McLaughlin. Cobham was to enjoy a fruitful synergy with McLaughlin, including as a member of the guitarist’s groundbreaking cross-cultural group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which blended jazz with blues, rock and Indian music. That was followed, in 1973, by Cobham setting up his first band as leader – Spectrum.
Drummer-led groups have always been a rarity in the jazz world. Last year, Cobham and McLaughlin briefly renewed their artistic acquaintance at the prestigious Montreux Jazz festival in Switzerland.
When Cobham was in his teens and was cutting his junior playing and academic teeth in the genre at New York’s famed High School of Music and Art, iconic trumpeter Miles Davis was one of the most revered members of the global jazz fraternity. A few years later, Cobham got to play with Davis, most notably on Davis’s 1971 fusion album A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
Now Cobham is one of the elder statesmen of the global music scene’s fusion sector, but shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. A couple of hours before we spoke on the phone, he had returned from a gig in Italy, and he maintains a punishing, globetrotting schedule that men half his age would find taxing.
While obviously loving what he does, Cobham says there are some practical motives behind his plane-hopping, although he adds that his schedule constantly changes for extraneous reasons, too.
“People like myself, who travel quite a bit to earn a living, are trying to reassess, I guess involuntarily, where we go and what we do now. Look at the tsunami in Japan, and developments in North Africa – not that I was thinking of going to Libya, but Egypt, for instance, is out now.
You’re dealt the cards and you have to do what you can with them.”
Cobham has gained a reputation as one of the best proponents of fusion music, he is also a natural performer, pounding his drum set in a highly animated fashion and sometimes even coming to the front of the stage to sing and entertain his audience in a less percussive way.
“I believe you have to reach out, you can’t wait for people to come to you,” he notes. “You have to look for ways to connect.”
Part of that is fueled by the fact that jazz is not the market force it was when he was a kid.
“It’s a fact of life, and we all have to make our products available to the public,” says the drummer – adding, however, that as far as he is concerned, that does not mean dropping his artistic standards.
“We all have to play the best we possibly can, to offer a product that people can stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I like that.’ If you can do that, you will find a lot of work. No problem.”
Cobham evidently does that well, and he graces clubs and festival stages all over the world on a frequent basis.
But way back when he was starting out, he says, there was little need to live out of a suitcase.
“Things were so different in those days. There were no computers, there were pinball machines. The musician’s mind-set back then was how many weeks will I play in one club or another? They could play at different places within the same city, within a 10-block radius, say six weeks at the Half Note [in New York], six nights a week, three to five shows a night, then you go to another club or two in Brooklyn and play for another six to 12 weeks, and then you come back to Manhattan and you play at the Five Spot [club] for another six weeks. You could go on like that and never leave New York City. Now it’s all about concert halls, open-air concerts and world music festivals.”
For Cobham, playing his best and reaching out to people also means constantly reinventing himself, and maintaining a creative continuum.
“Isn’t that what you want to do? Isn’t that why we’re here? Or do you just go on posturing and base what you do on the fact that you have one, two, maybe three hit records? It’s like someone saying to Miles [Davis], ‘How about playing [Davis’s 1959 best-selling record] Kind of Blue?’ and Miles would say, ‘I did that already.’ He may play something which might not be as good as Kind of Blue, but it would be as valid, at that time, as Kind of Blue was in the past.”
COBHAM’S EARLY ’70s berth with Davis was a formative period for him, and he says he learned some important lessons from the legendary trumpeter-bandleader.
“He taught me how to be an independent thinker, and to be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and the main word was ‘because’ – and then you’d have to come up with a reason that justified what you were doing. That’s something I learned from Miles.”
A large number of former Davis sidemen, including McLaughlin, have also noted the trumpeter’s facility to get out of his musicians a level of playing of which they themselves did not know they were capable. Cobham concurs, adding that Davis led by example and also possessed a sharp sense of his sonic milieu, what fit and when.
“He did that by his actions. He had an uncanny ability to play the right note at the right time. It’s an easier thing to say than do, trust me.”
The drummer says that other musicians, not blessed with Davis’s keen sense of pared-down necessity, tend to believe that more is more – to the detriment of their artistic offering.
“A lot of people, when you hear them play, will try to show how good a player they are in a certain way... by presenting all the scales that they’ve ever learned. But they didn’t have the ability to play a single note that carries through the chord changes until it wasn’t needed anymore. They didn’t know when to incorporate and when to release, and that’s the difference.”
Even after so many years on the road, and so much time in recording studios, Cobham keeps a strict work regimen.
“Practicing is a 24/7 thing you do all your life,” he declares. “The whole idea is that the mind has to play it through first. You have to imagine that you’ve done it before the body takes over. So you really have to practice.
You have to stay in touch with your trade, to allow the ideas to continually flow.”
Several years ago, when I interviewed Cobham prior to one of his appearances in Eilat, he proffered a somewhat startling theory that rock musicians do better than their jazz counterparts because of the latter’s tendency toward ego-stroking. He explains, however, that this is more a matter of survival than cultivating spiteful behavior.
“They don’t do that because they want to, it’s because they have no choice. They have to protect themselves.
Artists are very fragile, and when you listen to an artist – especially jazz musicians – I’d say that 70-75 percent of the time they are performing some act of genius. The problem with that is that geniuses are all on their own, they’re not part of a group, they are thinking only of what will provide acknowledgment for that specific action at that specific time. Keeping that very fragile mentality intact is very difficult for them. So they have a very narrow view and they have to protect themselves by saying they are the best at what they do, no matter what anybody else says.”
Another fundamental difference between the worlds of rock music and jazz is the lack of long-standing bands in the latter genre. Other than pianist Keith Jarrett’s trio, with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette, which has been recording and touring for over a quarter of a century, it is hard to think of any jazz groups that have been doing business as a unit for any appreciable length of time.
“It is very difficult to sustain [jazz] bands, because the people in the band are just looking to find a way to get to the next level and it’s all on the shoulders of the people they’re working with right then,” says Cobham. “But when you go to rock ’n’ roll, these guys are only too happy to be where they are. Based on whatever they do, it works as a group, it works as a unit. They have someone that’s walking them through life in real time, every second of the day, giving them anything they need, from drugs to money or whatever it takes to keep them in check and doing what they do to make money for themselves and, more than likely, somebody else before themselves.”
Plainly put, Cobham says the big bucks don’t always find their way to the men and women looking to push their artistic envelope.
“Unfortunately there are all sorts of people who play rock and roll, who do not necessarily have the musical acumen of those in jazz. What they do have is an ability to work with the public on a much more consistently long-term basis.”
Then again, his chosen field within the wider jazz domain does incorporate some rock-inflected elements that might have more mass appeal than straight-ahead jazz.
But the drummer doesn’t see it that way.
“I think it is about the individual who has a plan, who maybe thinks ‘Okay, this is what I do. How can I sell this product? What do I get for licensing this idea?’ The artist has to be savvy enough to identify a situation and say, ‘I can work with this, in return for whatever the payment may be.’ You have to know you want to expand on the foundation you’ve set. Most “jazz” musicians are not able to do that.”
Besides fusing various musical strands in his artistic output, several years ago, Cobham tried his hand at electronically enhancing his playing. It is a pretty well-kept secret that over 40 years ago, he was at the forefront of the electronic music industry and its development through jazz, as one of the first percussionists, along with fellow leading jazz drummers Max Roach and Tony Williams, to utilize the Electronic Drum Controller made in Italy.
Cobham doesn’t attach too much importance to that brief dalliance.
“My patience level is very short when it comes to electronic stuff. If I turn it on and it doesn’t work, I just unplug it and go on to something else that I know works. It’s kind of my Achilles’ heel because I should have involved myself more in the electronic side.
The few times it did work, I found it was a lot of fun. Then I’d start to get into it, and one thing would lead to another, and the next thing you knew I was back in the acoustic world and not missing electronic music at all. That’s just the way I think.”
That early unsuccessful experience notwithstanding, Cobham may be ready to retry the electronic route.
“Now I am back knocking on the door of electronic music again.
I have some better-organized ideas that I’d like to put forward, so I’d say you should look forward to hearing me do that live if I am ever blessed to get back to Israel after this concert.”
Cobham has also fed off Middle Eastern musical vibes over the years. Last year, he hooked up with Kuwait-born guitarist Kamal Musallam on the latter’s Eastmania project, and has also enjoyed the sideman services of young Israeli guitarist Inbar Friedman, the latter when Friedman backed Cobham and Bulgarian kaval (flute) player Thedosii Spassov at the Plovdiv Jazz Nights Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“Kamal came in with some really nice ideas. That was a good time. And coming from a different part of the world, he brings something else. Inbar is a wonderful guitarist, she’s one of my alltime favorite players. She’s my female Jim Hall,” says Cobham, referencing the iconic 80-year-old American jazz guitarist.
Another ethnic-music-based venture saw him team up with American saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who died in 2009, and Algerian oud player-violinist Chaouki Smahi.
“That was a whole other world,” the drummer reflects. “I feel very much blessed that I’ve had the chance to work with all these people. This is what creates the personality to which I belong. This is who I am.”
All this cross-cultural work has led Cobham, who is predominantly known as a dynamic fusion drummer, to reassess his place within the wider musical domain. “I am a world music player, I am not a jazz musician – I don’t think so.”
Even so, fusion fans will probably be delighted that Cobham’s Jerusalem date will be based on material from the drummer’s last two releases, Palindrome (2010) and Fruit from the Loom (2008), which partly revisit some of his earlier work. One thing is for sure – there will be no shortage of energy output at the Jerusalem Theater next month.
The Billy Cobham band will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on June 18 at 9 p.m. For more information: www.israel-festival.org.il.