Drummer Billy Cobham Fuses Precision and Power

When drummer Billy Cobham hits a drum head with a stick, that sucker stays hit. Combining explosive aggression with a subtle rhythmic sensibility accented with a Spanish tinge, Cobham blasted his way to prominence as a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the
prototypical fusion band of the early 1970s.

Photo by Faina Cobham.

But it was his own recording, Spectrum, that unexpectedly launched his career as a leader in 1973. Intended as a showcase to help him find work as a sideman, the album, which fused funk, jazz, and rock, established Cobham as a virtuoso force to be reckoned with, both as a leader and a composer.

On the 40th anniversary of that recording, the Billy Cobham Spectrum 40 international tour is revisiting those compositions, which are now informed by a career that spans more than 50 years and, it seems, about as many musical genres. From George Duke to the Grateful Dead, Nigeria’s Okuta Percussion to Cuba’s Asere, Ron Carter to Jack Bruce, Kenny Barron to Peter Gabriel, Cobham has played with an astonishingly wide range of artists and absorbed literally a world of musical influences in the course of his creative journey.

This Saturday, the New Mexico Jazz Workshop presents the tireless drummer at the Kimo
Theater. He’ll be bringing longtime compadres Dean Brown (guitar), Gary Husband (piano), and Ric Fierabracci (bass) with him to explore new arrangements of the classic Spectrum

Multiple Inputs

Born in Panama in 1944 and growing up in New York City, Cobham attended New York’s famed High School of Music and Art, which prepared him for a stint in the U.S. Army Band from 1965 to 1968. Once out of the service, he landed a spot in Horace Silver’s group.

In 1969, he cofounded the fusion group Dreams, which featured Randy and Michael Brecker (trumpet and sax, respectively), John Abercrombie (guitar), Don Grolnick (piano), Barry Rodgers (trombone), and Will Lee (bass). In 1970, he contributed to the seminal Miles Davis recordings Bitches Brew and Tribute to Jack Johnson. The following year, he cofounded the Mahavishnu
Orchestra, which had a three-year run with the original lineup: John McLaughlin (acoustic and electric guitars), Rick Laird (bass), Jan Hammer (electric and acoustic piano and synthesizer), and Jerry Goodman (violin).

Photo by Anton Antonov.

Photo by Anton Antonov.

Cobham followed that up with the Spectrum recording, which set him off on a 40-year
creative odyssey that has brought him in touch with musical genres and master
musicians around the world. Rather than
focus his attention on a specific form, he has embraced diverse musical inputs.

“I feel it’s important, and it’s also something that I can bring to the table that’s a bit unique, and a selling point for the Billy Cobham brand, which is what I’m selling,” he says. “I’m in business, and I have to have something to offer my public. The last thing I want to do is sound like somebody that came before me exactly.”

Multiple Points of View
For the last 25 years, Cobham has been living in Switzerland. That, too, influences his
interpretations, as he comes into contact with musicians whose backgrounds can be radically different from those of his American compatriots. A group of musicians in New York, he says, will approach a song like “Bye-Bye Blackbird” quite differently from musicians who were not brought up in the States, where the tune was written.

“I’ve worked with musicians playing one tune—‘My Funny Valentine’—with a saxophone player from Bombay, and the bass player was someone from Istanbul, and the piano player came from Moscow, and the vibraphone player came from Florida, and you have a trumpet player out of Scandinavia,” he says. “And all of these people are playing the same tune, but their
approaches in terms of soloing and the way they express themselves are based on where they live and what they’ve experienced, and you get a combination of music that is very, very unique.”

Whatever style of music Cobham is playing, his crisp signature sound derives from tightly
controlled explosive power. Think of a cartridge chambered in a rifle, though the more-fitting
simile might be belted cartridges on a machine gun.

The secret to Cobham’s combination of power and precision begins with “setting your mind up to multitask,” says Cobham. “The objective is what you do primarily, and then as important,
although it’s in the background, is secondarily what’s going on to make the primary purpose have some direction.” Sorting out what the task at hand is and working it out in his mind
before he tries to play it gives Cobham the freedom to explode rhythmically.

Also important, he says, is “an understanding what the instrument can do for you in terms of producing the musical picture you wanted to present. So that means you have to set the
instrument up, understand the components of the drum, and what those components do in
harmony with each other, so that the drum will speak in the way that you would like it to speak. If you can do that, it makes it so much easier to play.”

Photo by Sergio Coppi.

Photo by Sergio Coppi.

It also helps that Cobham possesses a sharp and nimble
intelligence, a ceaseless curiosity, and a human warmth that deepen his conceptualizations on how the drum should speak. Those same elements have enriched his life in other ways, too, allowing him to work successfully as a producer, author, and teacher.

One of his more fascinating ventures involved a mandate from UNICEF to work with autistic people in Italy and later in Brazil, examining the possibility of effecting treatment and opening lines of communication via rhythm and music.
“Certain tones are projected depending on the individuals, who are autistic. These individuals can function as long as the tone is functioning and communicate with everybody on the same level,” says Cobham.

So if a pure G, for example, is being generated in the background of an individual’s home, that person is able to function and communicate with their peers, without the need for expensive drugs, says Cobham. This experience is documented in the film Sonic Mirror, directed by Mika Kaurismaki, which focuses on the therapeutic quality of music as it follows Cobham on his
intercontinental travels.

It’s a fairly safe bet that Cobham’s appearance at the Kimo Theater will also have its
therapeutic effects.

Billy Cobham Spectrum 40
Presented by the New Mexico Jazz Workshop
Saturday, September 28, 7:00 p.m.
Kimo Theater
423 Central Avenue NW, Albuquerque
Tickets $50/$45/$40 ($5 discount for NMJW members), available from Hold My Ticket.
For more info, visit nmjazz.org.

Special Meet & Greet following the performance, with limited ticket availability.
For more info, call 505-255-9798.

© 2013 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Drummer Billy Cobham Fuses Precision and Power

  1. Rick DiZenzo

    Great (link) video! What amazes me is that he switches–and musically so–his grips . . . sometimes has his “index finger in between both sticks” and sometimes has “both sticks between his thumb and index finger.” Kind of like a bastardized version of some vibraphone/marimba mallet grips.

  2. Rick DiZenzo

    Dig it man . . . great and well done! Mel, thanks for this! A couple of weeks ago I found myself playing my drum set with 4 mallets (2 in each hand) and said to myself, “this is great, but it’s already been done.” I continued to do it anyway because of some early footage I remember . . . seeing and hearing Billy play this way, years ago when I was very young, inspires me still today.


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