Billy Cobham – ‘Playing His Story’

By Bryan Reesman

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One of the true titans of the drumming world, Billy Cobham is in a class by himself. The highly dexterous, exceptionally fluid player has redefined and elevated the world of jazz drumming over the course of the last 50 years – from the way his drums are set up to his sticking technique to his double bass drum intensity – and has brought an impeccable sense of groove to every project he has worked on. He turned 75 this year and is still moving full steam ahead. There are always new adventures to undertake and always a new chapter in his life’s story to relate to his audience.

Born in Panama then raised in New York City from the age of three, he was raised by parents with musical aptitude (his father, a pianist and his mother, a singer) and was steeped in Latin music and jazz from the start. He began playing drums at age 4 and landed his first gig at 8. By the age of 14, when his parents bought him his first kit, he was performing in St. Catherine’s Queensmen, a drum and bugle corps in St. Albans, Queens. The experience there helped improve his skill and widen his musical viewpoint, which benefited him when he played in the U.S. Army Band between 1965 and 1968 after attending New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art. (Yes, the Fame school.) His high school peers included pianist Larry Willis, singer Janis Ian, and trumpeter Jimmy Owens.

By the late 1960s, Cobham was already gigging with people such as George Benson, Ron Carter, and Randy Scott. He played on four recordings by Miles Davis, including the iconic Bitches Brew, and in 1969 he co-founded the group Dreams which included, among others, John Abercrombie and Randy and Michael Brecker. During his time with the Mahavishnu Orchestra from 1971 to 1973, Cobham and gifted bandmates like guitarist Jerry McLaughlin and violinist Jerry Goodman exchanged rapid fire passages and engaged in a high speed mind meld. This was at a time when players of what became dubbed “fusion” where shredding to impress.

Spectrum, Cobham’s 1973 solo debut, became a surprise Top-30 hit. It sounded almost like “heavy metal jazz” and offered a perfect transition for anyone seeking to expand from harder rock into jazz (including this journalist back in the late 1980s). Since the time he went solo, the dynamic drummer has recorded in a variety of styles (jazz, rock, Latin, even a disco-ish album) with a variety of people, including John Scofield, Quincy Jones, James Brown, Peter Gabriel, and many, many more. He even did a gig with 2018 JAZZed cover subject Grace Kelly and the Moscow National Symphony Orchestra.

Many of Cobham’s efforts in the last 20 years have expanded his reach further. The Art Of Three, The Art Of Four, and The Art Of Five have explored the power of performance in a variety of musical combos. The four-volume Drum ‘n’ Voice series features many tracks with different singers. In an interview we did back in 2003, Cobham told me had started putting space into his post-fusion music to allow listeners to add in their own notes in their heads. Even though he is not constantly unleashing a hyperactive barrage of tom fills and snare work like he used to, he is still very capable of playing all of that. But the way he plays it now is different.

“I’m trying to pick and choose where I play, where I use speed as a tool,” Cobham tells JAZZed during our 75-minute video Skype interview. “I want to be able to play as effectively – it’s a big dream to consistently do it. But I want to be able to play and groove at a tempo of about 40 beats per minute and in the same way that I would groove at 132 beats per minute, in terms of the effect of what I play. When you play that slow, it has got to be real. It’s got to be human. It cannot be robotic. You cannot be on the beat. It has to imply that feeling of being on the beat. You have to lean towards the Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan or Carmen McRae kind of phrasing where the tempo is the same, but in and around that beat is a very human element because none of us speak like robots. The whole idea is to be able to still speak your mind, but not be afraid to let the phrase flow for you as opposed to forcing the phrasing of the idea at that tempo. It’s not easy.”

One approach that Cobham has taken to his playing in recent years is to not play on a snare drum any more than he absolutely has to. He has been using his toms as a springboard, as the initial pattern, as opposed to coming from the snare drum. “Then playing specific tones on each tom that ties into a chordal pattern,” he adds. “I’m thinking more harmonically, melodically, musically than I am about the rhythm. The rhythm is always there. Now, that said, selectivity comes into play much, much more. I’m thinking more air, less notes per bar to be played rhythmically, and letting those tones sing out and ring longer. I’m just trying to find a way to not let those tom sounds get in the way of each other, trying to create an environment tonally that supports the music without changing or altering the sovereignty of the foundational rhythmic patterns.”

An interesting aspect of Cobham’s Drum ’n’ Voice releases are a few reworked versions of earlier tunes, including “Red Baron” (with singing) and “Le Lis” (rapping). The drummer acknowledges that he is always open to reinterpreting his own work.

“There’s another ‘Red Baron’ coming,” he reveals. “But it’s called ‘In Search of Snoopy’. It’s a whole other world. It’s another feeling. When we play it live now, everybody gets up. It’s our encore track, and we get everybody to clap their hands and groove. They sit down when they come in. They’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, nor am I, but at the end it’s all about just laying it down and everybody grooving and feeling very, very comfortable with what’s happening. A lot of the information that I present to my audiences is brain food, and what I’d like them to leave the place remembering is that it’s still all about a groove.”

As much as he is advancing his own playing, the iconic drummer wants to pass along his knowledge to younger generations. In the near future, Cobham’s fourth annual The Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat will be held in Mesa, Arizona. While it is mostly comprised of drummers, other musicians are brought in, primarily sax players but also people who play bass, guitar, and keyboards. The age range and background of the participants is quite varied.

“The whole objective is to learn in real time to hit the ground running and lay something down for your colleagues, whether you play a lead instrument in front of the rhythm section or part of the rhythm section,” explains Cobham. “Something that’ll catch everybody’s attention and that we can build on as a group. The success factor is about the band sounding good, not the individual. No one should remember who played drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, or sax. It should be, ‘The band sounded great, man.’ They, they, all the time they. Do that, [and] you [get] work. Everybody’s looking at who was in the band that did so and so and so. ‘Oh yeah, right. He was in that band. That band sounded great. Hire him.’”

Ultimately, that Retreat exercise is about teaching people the philosophy of group playing. The audience is made up of the attending musicians who are not playing in the rhythm section at that point in time, and the goal is to make them feel good about what is being played.

“Once you realize that that rhythm section is happening, everybody has a model,” says Cobham. “It could start with the coaches. We set that template. Everybody has to emulate that template. If they’re successful, we change people. If they’re not successful, the question is why? Who’s the weak link? Who’s not listening? The weak link could be somebody’s playing only for his or herself. They’re playing a whole lot of notes that don’t mean anything. They got it technically right, but they don’t fit because they’re not listening to what everybody else is doing. We want to find people who fit together. So maybe we take that person out who’s superior to everybody else individually and put somebody else that’s not superior, that listens, that feels good just laying it down with only what they know. All of a sudden you’ve got a band.”

Prior to playing with Miles Davis, Dreams, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham began teaching in the mid-1960s. He says there was a certain period where he and other talented drummers including Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Papa Jo Jones were not getting a lot of work, and they used to congregate at the Professional Percussion Center in New York City on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue. Cobham also taught there, accruing students mostly through owner Frank Ippolito. (One of them was future Jethro Tull drummer Doane Perry.) Located on the third floor of that building was a lot of storage of drums from older drummers like Zutty Singleton and people like Dixieland players who passed through New York City and had no place to keep their drums.

“Some of them had died literally, and there were rooms where they kept the drums in,” recalls Cobham. “Many musicians weren’t working. We had studios up there, so it was nice to be able to sit down, not only passing on ideas and working with other players, but it was also really beautiful to watch the way they would restore drums. All of these shells. At that time, people didn’t want old drums. They wanted new drums. There was some amazing stuff that had weathered. The wood had finally stopped expanding and contracting, and it was a beautiful shell.”

He also recalls that at the time, despite the wealth of music books available to drummers back then, a lot of that printed instructional material did not translate onto the bandstand. Cobham recalls a lot of uniformity to playing he heard then; more in the swing than rock vein, perhaps with a little bossa nova tossed in. A lot of playing was geared mainly towards things like jingles, studio work, and Broadway plays.

“They needed to sight read better, so what you got were robots more than players from the heart,” says Cobham. “People who didn’t make mistakes, and they wanted to know how to play certain patterns a certain way. They needed to be told what to do. Things changed. After the advent of Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, people wanted to be freer, I think, but they didn’t know how to be. They didn’t understand that there was more to playing drums than just beating on a membraned instrument. It had to have some personality. Those patterns had to mean something.”

When students asked him if they could they play like him, Cobham would respond by asking them to play him their history. Naturally, they wanted to know what he meant. “‘Where’d you come from? Can you interpret where you came from on a solo?’” Cobham would ask. “And when they started to play, I said, ‘Okay, that’s interesting, but it’s loud, man. Can you do it exactly what you just did again? But do it 50 percent softer than you did the first time.’ That’s a tall order if you’ve never done it before. But you’re so quick to jump in and say, ‘Of course I can.’ You could, had you thought about what you played before. Most of the time you hadn’t, so you couldn’t do it because you didn’t remember what you did.”

Looking to younger, newer players, and asked about their common mistakes, Cobham notes they have not got a sense of timing and lack a foundation. “They lack experience, and they try to do things that they see someone else do,” he says. “They can’t do it because they just don’t understand why it was done and what were the circumstances that were there for an artist to stand up and play. I remember working with [Cream member] Jack Bruce, and we were playing a tune called ‘Bird Alone’ on a television show for Eurovision where the opening act was The Police. This was back around 1981. Jack was just writing some wonderful stuff. It was me, David Sancious on keyboards, Clem Clempson from Colosseum on guitar, and Jack playing bass and piano [and singing]. We were a force to be reckoned with it right around that time. We never left no stone unturned. We were smoking.”

“It got to a point where the band started to levitate afterwards,” continues Cobham. “That’s where I wanted to be every night. And yet I couldn’t be. I wasn’t frustrated by it because I understood stood why I couldn’t be. I wasn’t playing with people every night that would feed me nor could I feed them in the same way. In Mahavishnu, I left my body twice. We were working, we were playing on stage, and I could watch the band play from the second tier while I was still on the bandstand. There was just something very, very mystical about things that had happened. That was only the second time or third time that ever happened to me, and it scared me half to death. When I came and worked with Jack, it happened again. I realized it’s all about the contributions that the players make to each other, and if we’re working together, we leave our bodies as a unit and we’re gone until we come back, whatever it might be. It can be for a blip. When you can turn around and say, ‘Wow, band sounds good down there.’ Or you’re in the back of the room watching the band that you’re playing in sound good. That’s a heavy statement. It can happen, but it takes a group effort to make it happen. I always remember it got so heavy that I didn’t even remember when I was standing up.”

Cobham says he does not have any one professor or teacher who was a large influence on him. He seeks knowledge from wherever or whomever he can get it: “My teachers, people like yourself, people who ask questions where I could share information and respond to,” he elaborates. “I don’t think any question is a show of ignorance or lesser level than anything else. I need to hear and maybe revisit certain things that I’d never heard before, or I had heard before, and just to get a handle on how that relates to me now as opposed to before.”

He then reveals that he just recorded two pieces with brushes, and that he had not used brushes on a recording in over 40 years. This is simply because he has always been asked to play with sticks by various producers and collaborators. For example, brushes were never a part of the intense Mahavishnu milieu, but mallets and sticks were.

While Cobham once played vibraphone, he has focused on drum kit throughout his career. “I wanted to play congas, but I found that that those drums and hand drums in particular are highly specialized instruments,” he notes. “They’re very unique, and you tend to want to dedicate yourself in percussion. It’s very difficult to play a whole bunch of things, as far as I’m concerned, at the level that I would like to play one thing. There’s not enough time in the day for me.”

Drums may be his focus, but Cobham clearly understands melody and composition. He has songwriting credits all over his solo work. Writing songs did not come easy at first, but he learned.

“I was blessed that I was in a circle of artists that was very unique,” says Cobham, recalling an ensemble from the late ‘60s that also included Ron Carter. “It was called the New York Jazz Sextet, but it was not just a sextet. It was a group of guys who were very, very good at what they did on their respective instruments, and they just had such a strong theoretical base. They would drill me as being the drummer in the band, but the requirement was that everybody in the band had to write. I was the weak link when it came to writing. What I learned from them was that in order for me to continue to become a better musician at my instrument, I had to understand how they played their instruments so that I could write for their instruments and be more effective in terms of supporting them in a band situation. Hence the retreat I have now. This is what I teach.”

The Billy Cobham Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat was inspired by a small music school called Rhythm Associates, which was founded and run by the late Chris White around 1966 through 1970. Young musicians there learned about rhythm section interaction while working with professional musicians. Those big names included White, Jimmy Owens, Ed Thigpen, and many others. Cobham’s main teachers and mentors from that time were those three along with Roland Hannah.

“All I had to do was not talk, listen,” says Cobham. “Ask a question, you might get a very gruff answer. But in the gruff answer, there was so much truth because they never stopped listening to all of the players around them, especially the young players that they felt had a chance to make an impact, to be the next generation following them.”

Cobham felt very honored to be in their midst, even just to listen and watch. Even better, he would end up being called by someone like Mel Lewis or Ron Carter to see what he was up to the next day, a clear sign that a gig was in the offering.

“It wasn’t, ‘You sound good’,” clarifies Cobham. “If they ask you, ‘Are you busy? Are you able to come over and do so and so and so?’ Obviously it sounded good. Or they wouldn’t ask you that. So not only do you sound good, you’re good enough to earn some money on this one project if you’re here. And the next thing you know, exponentially everybody knows Billy can do [this and that]. They want to know who works.”

The lifelong drummer stresses that two important factors in achieving success are being dependable and being on time. Failing on the latter past was an unforgivable sin when he was living in New York. “You could not come to a recording session that started at 9 at 9 if you were the drummer,” says Cobham. “You had to be there at 8:30 for the obvious reason that you had to set up your drums. Nobody said anything. The session didn’t start until nine, so if by some way you could get started by arriving at 8:59, God bless you.” And if you were running late, you might find yourself quickly replaced.

This all dovetails into the advice that Cobham offers when queried about any life lessons he can impart. “When you say you can do something, do it,” he declares. “Don’t talk about it. Do it. A great example: You rarely hear anybody talking about Ron Carter not doing something. You always hear that Ron has done so and so. That’s what sticks.”

Many people may not know that Cobham has been living in Switzerland for about 40 years now. While the traditional narrative is that many iconic jazz musicians were either born in or journeyed to New York and thrived there, things have changed now given the rising costs of life in that metropolis. People are moving to other places and thinking about other possibilities for making their music. Our cover subject is the perfect example. He has been thriving in Europe and touring internationally for decades.

“Your base, your history, your experiences are what you develop the material that presents your personality,” stresses Cobham. “You can’t just up and write. You may be born with a gift. But in my opinion, the gift of music you’re born with is to be exploited and developed to a higher level. You can stay there and probably work for the rest of your life at that level. But what would happen if you had the opportunity to make it into something much, much more than that over the amount of time that you’re on this earth? That’s a big question that only the individual can answer. You have to want to do it.”

He adds that one must be ready to stumble and make mistakes. Because learning from those mistakes tells you who you really are and helps design your personality, “so that when you come in front of an audience, you’ve got something to talk about,” he asserts. “When I came from Europe and played The Blue Note maybe once a year for five or 10 years, every time I came with something a little bit different. Why? Because everybody’s doing the same thing in New York. That’s easy. They’re home, they can do the same thing. They know what people like. You fall into that hole, you’re in serious trouble.”

In more recent years, Cobham has found that one of the things that helps him is not just playing the drums. He has taken a very strong interest in setting up his own gear because he wants to be “really in touch with what I’m doing [and] where everything is, especially on recording sessions,” he says. “I’m just trying to refine how I can do it live because I can only spend so much time running a band and coming early to the place to set up the gear. I can’t do it all, especially if my equipment is at a level where I have to micromanage every stand and make sure everything is okay. I’m not going to be able to be effective musically because I can’t put the time in. But when I’m in the studio and I know I’m going to be there for three, four days or a week, I’ll generally have my gear arrive and then take everything out. I set up my stands quietly, and it’s like a ritual that helps me to play better because I know exactly what I’ve got to work with and why it’s there.”

While some of his musical peers have been struggling with ailments like arthritis as they get older, Cobham remains active and limber. This topic elicits a remark about an important mentor he had in his past. They did not see each other often, but the drummer would visit him at his home and they had some engaging late night chats. Cobham says it was more him listening than anything else. That man was the legendary Vic Firth.

“He was a great timpanist for almost 50 years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” reveals Cobham of the man whose company made his drumsticks. “He actually designed the drumsticks that I used up until a few months ago. He died maybe two years or three years ago [Firth passed away in 2015 – Ed.]. He gave me a lot of advice on how to hold my sticks and not get those problems [like arthritis]. Only use the hands when you need to play to fully express the thoughts that you make up here [in your head]. It’s about what you develop here and play up here first before you play on the instrument itself.”

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