Jazz Commentary: Billy Cobham, Then and Now — An Awesome Jazz Drummer
By Allen Michie
Billy Cobham plays right on top of the beat, and his grooves are impeccable. Maybe he’s not the first drummer you’d call for a loose New Orleans shuffle, but if you could hire the Terminator to be your percussionist, Cobham is your man.
Spectrum – Billy Cobham (Atlantic)
Drum ‘n’ Voice, Vol. 5 – Billy Cobham (Nicolosi Productions)
Billy Cobham turns 79 this year, but he looks like he’s 50 if a day, thanks to a lifetime of working out and taking care of himself. He certainly got plenty of exercise on the bandstand. Cobham is one of the original Awesome Jazz Drummers (AJD) from the developing jazz-rock fusion days of the ’70s and ’80s, alongside Tony Williams, Lenny White, Alphonse Mouzon, and later Ginger Baker, Dennis Chambers, Rod Morgenstern, Dave Weckl, Anton Fig, Chad Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta, and many others. Salute also to the thousands of AJDs around the world, rocking out in treacherous time signatures alone in their garages and basements, whose names are lost to us through time.
Like his AJD peers, Cobham knows it’s part of the act to surround himself with an intimidating arsenal of drums, as he did during his most famous gig with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. But, after all this time, his roots are still in what he likely learned in his 20s as a drummer in the US Army National Band: the paradiddles, double-stroke rolls, flam taps, flapdoodles, do-wah-diddies, flapjacks, and whatever else drummers call those basic patterns on the snare. It’s all in how you hold the stick and how you keep that wrist loose. While the other AJDs played as many drums as possible as often as possible, sometimes swiveling around 360 degrees on their stools to get a whack on all of them (plus the de rigueur gong), Cobham was usually bearing down with 64th notes on that poor snare drum. If I had the choice between having the entire US Gross Domestic Product for 2022 or a dollar for every time Billy Cobham has hit a snare, I’m not sure which I would choose.
Cobham plays right on top of the beat, and his grooves are impeccable. Maybe he’s not the first drummer you’d call for a loose New Orleans shuffle, but if you could hire the Terminator to be your percussionist, Cobham is your man. Today we have computers, but back then they just had talented musicians who practiced their asses off.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cobham’s debut album, and still his most famous one, 1973’s Spectrum. It’s a familiar album cover to many — it took its place in those wooden LP crates for many of us alongside our well-worn albums by Weather Report, Return to Forever, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Yes, Dixie Dregs, Al DiMeola, and Miles Davis (Live/Evil and Jack Johnson were with Cobham). It’s not the first jazz-rock fusion album, and it maybe isn’t the most groundbreaking, but listening to it fresh after 50 years shows that it still holds up well where others from its era suffer from the clogged arteries of Prog excess.
Spectrum has the kind of complicated, multipart compositions in shifting time signatures that mark much of the jazz-rock fusion of the early ’70s, an influence more from Return to Forever than from Weather Report. It sounds like it must have been insanely difficult to perform and record, but the session was recorded live in the studio with just one or two takes per track. Guitarist Tommy Bolin even broke his high E string during a solo on “Taurian Matador,” but they all just kept on playing (and it’s the master).
Cobham clearly learned much from his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but he’s moved on. Stratus still sounds good today because it isn’t as noisy, ostentatious, and self-important as Mahavishnu. There’s still some room for air, and the grooves make you move instead of just think. Tommy Bolin’s and John Tropea’s guitar solos still do their guitar-hero thing from time to time but — unlike McLaughlin in Mahavishnu — they know it isn’t all their show. “To the Women in My Life” is a short, peaceful acoustic piano solo from Jan Hammer — it’s not really necessary, but you’d never hear such a thing on a Mahavishnu record.
There’s a variety of grooves on Spectrum, as befits a drummer-led album. The opener, “Quadrant 4,” is the testosterone-fueled AJD workout. “Stratus” has a simpler and (relatively) stripped down rock groove. “Le Lis” is cooler with some acoustic trumpet from Jimmy Owens — it’s an example of what the genre we now call “smooth jazz” could have been if Quiet Storm radio hadn’t drained it of all its red blood cells. “Red Baron” boasts a deep bass and a straightforward drum groove, one that needs to be picked up by the House and Acid Jazz remixers today. Here, as well as on other places on Spectrum, Cobham reminds you that a sign of a true AJD is knowing when to lay back if the guitarist is playing some soulful blues.
Many of the fusion bands were experimenting with the various new Moog synthesizer sounds during the early ’70s, inspired by the imagination and expertise of Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock. On Spectrum, it’s Jan Hammer matching up the patch cables and scrolling the wheel. But the dominant keyboard sound is still the Fender Rhodes electric piano, grounding the music in the stable and familiar, even when it takes off on its wildest flights. Hammer is a full partner on Spectrum, and his contribution is one reason why this record still sounds fresh 50 years later.
Cobham has returned to Spectrum several times over the years, for reasons both artistic and commercial. Ten years ago he released Spectrum: 40 Live with his touring quartet at the time. This May, he’s doing a “Spectrum 50” tour of Norway with Gary Husband on keyboards, Michael Mondesir on bass, and Rocco Zifarelli. Hopefully they’ll expand the tour to the US. If they play with half the fire of Spectrum: 40 Live, it will be well worth a ticket. Bring that ambitious young drummer you know who doubts the relevance of practicing paradiddles.
Cobham’s new album is Drum ‘n’ Voice Vol. 5, the latest in a series that goes back to 2002. It would be a mistake to look for a great deal of unity among the entries in this series, but generally they’re Cobham’s check-ins with the day’s pop, soul, and jazz fusion styles. Previous volumes featured vocal turns from Chaka Khan, Gino Vannelli, and several others. The meaning of “voice” quickly expanded to feature guest instrumental soloists, which have included John Scofield, Michael Brecker, Stanley Jordan, Bob Mintzer, Buddy Miles, George Duke, John Patitucci, and many more. Hearing the volumes in sequence would be one way to trace the state of jazz-rock-pop fusion over the last 20 years.
The new Volume 5 has guest spots from guitarist Mike Stern, vocalist and percussionist Narada Michael Walden, vocalist Ronnie Jones, and keyboardists Brian Auger and Eumir Deodato. But eight of the 11 tracks rely on Novecento, a multigenre quartet of exceptional musicians from Italy. They appear on other volumes as well, sometimes sharing main album credits with Cobham. They’re well-versed in synthpop, funk, pop, and jazz, and they’re the perfect foundation for these groove anthologies.
So, what does Vol. 5 tell us about jazz today? There’s more to jazz fusion than Hip-Hop. “Testing Service” shows the influence of Drum ‘n’ Bass music with its rapid electronic grooves. It’s a good match for Cobham’s style, although he holds back and keeps it heavy on the 2 & 4. The relentlessness of Drum ‘n’ Bass yields to the jazz influence, however, with actual melodies and strong development. It’s still an AJD fusion fix that Spectrum fans will recognize and appreciate.
There are the requite awesome guitar solos, although things are slicker and more commercial now, including synth guitars. “Wireless Communication” features Mike Stern. We hear the super-fast snare work we associate with Cobham in the introduction, followed by another straight-ahead rock groove. Stern plays it inside, more rock than jazz, always grounded in the electric blues, and always bringing his trademark technique of building a dramatic musical narrative.
“Seven Eight” also has that great Cobham work on snare, always in perfect time. There’s an appealing layered sound to the slick production. Novecento’s bassist, Rossana Nicolosi, needs much wider recognition here in the states. She can play like Jaco Pastorius (the highest compliment) with a clean, precise, busy background so full of continuous invention that it can be considered a constant solo. It’s worth a second listen to these tracks just to zero in on the substantive bass playing, even on the most commercial tracks. This is Acid Jazz with those Blue Note touches, perfect for those London nightclubs that can’t get enough of this kind of thing.
Some of the tracks slide comfortably onto the border of Smooth Jazz, but hey, that’s also a part of where jazz fusion is today. Cobham is way too hot, even at his coolest, to ever go all-in on the snooze jazz. “Summer” is a relaxed vacation groove with lots of synth keyboard cushions, electric piano, wordless vocals, and a George Benson-style guitar solo. Creed Taylor, one of Cobham’s most frequent employers from CTI records back in the late ’70s an ’80s, would have dug it. “You Smile” is on the smooth side, too, a conventional R&B pop song, and “Solo” has Cobham applying just a bit of Awesome to poke up through the gauzy cloud of synth strings.
But if these tracks cause you to let your guard down, other tracks such as “Fourth Dimension” will smack you in the head with old-school fusion from the Spectrum playbook, only with less cheesy synth sounds. Keyboardist Brian Auger, who played with Hendrix, is not here to waste time. “Tasty” has a House music style with an added welcome bounce. This mechanical style locks Cobham down, however, so it doesn’t hold as much interest as other tracks.
Cobham, bless him, is still out there at 79, still in amazing shape, holding his own with youngsters and veterans on the bandstand, having nothing to do with sequencers or drum pads, touring, teaching, grooving hard, and still making contributions to state-of-the-art jazz fusion 50 years after his debut album. Now that’s what I call an Awesome Jazz Drummer.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He’s the manager of the Miles Davis Discussion Group on Facebook.