Talkin' About Drums and Legends With Jazz Icon Billy Cobham

Publish Notes: 

Goldmine Magazine, February 2013

Talkin' About Drums and Legends With Jazz Icon Billy Cobham
Talkin' About Drums and Legends With Jazz Icon Billy Cobham

Billy Cobham is one of the truly influential jazz-fusion drummers, combining the often complex, compositional varieties of jazz with the power of fusion and rock aggression. The virtuosity and versatility of his playing is legendary, having performed and recorded with such important and often iconic artists including (deep breath) Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, George Benson, the Brecker Brothers, Freddie Hubbard, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Kenny Burrell, Peter Gabriel, Grateful Dead, Jack Bruce, of course, how can we forget his own groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra and even the Saturday Night Live Band!

Photos courtesy of Billy Cobham

Originally from Panama, Cobham grew up in New York City and came from quite a musical family, which led him to attend the prestigious New York High School of Music and Art, for which he graduated in 1962. Cobham would cut his teeth playing in the U. S. Army Band from 1965-68 and following his discharge, joined a jazz ensemble led by hard-bop pianist Horace Silver and featuring guitarist George Benson.

In the 70's, Cobham would branch out into the world of jazz fusion and by the end of the decade, was widely regarded as a key innovator, performing on some of the most important albums of the genre including Miles Davis' Bitches Brew sessions, Mahavishnu Orchestra's The Inner Mounting Flame, Stanley Clarke's School Days and his own Spectrum.

From the mid-70's moving forward, Cobham would forge a solo career as a band leader, while also maintaining an impressive list of credits as a highly sought-after session drummer. Throughout the 1980's and 90's Billy would not only record numerous albums with a new quartet, Glass Menagerie, but also toured the world, indulging into world music including Peter Gabriel's WOMAD Festival, recording a solo release in Brazil, forming an acoustic quartet (Nordic) in Norway, a German-based quartet dubbed Paradox, and Jazz Is Dead - which created jazz interpretations of Grateful Dead music.

Currently, Cobham is staying busy as ever, leading his own incredible Billy Cobham Band ensemble for the last half-dozen years, and recently began teaching drums online at the Billy Cobham School of Drums, a program sponsored by the ArtistWorks Drum Academy. I recently caught up with Mr. Cobham for an exclusive interview.

Goldmine: Growing up in New York City, how did you first get exposed to the drums and who were your early musical influences?
Billy Cobham: I was born into a musical family so, I had no real choice in my direction. My folks were musicians or musicians who taught musicians. We lived in a musical community and listened to music 24/7. So, my being involved with music came naturally. My early influences were my father and mother, both pianist and vocalist, respectively. They were very much in touch with the New York musical community so I was able to connect with many musicians during my early years.

GM: After playing in the U. S. Army Band as a percussionist from 1965-68, you joined a band led by legendary pianist Horace Silver. How did that connection come about and do you consider that your first "big break?"
BC: When I was released from my commitment to the Army, I had already established myself amongst some musical groups in the New York City area. Due to the "grapvine" network in town, I was told about auditions being held by Horace Silver at a rehearsal studio on the upper west side of the city. A friend helped me arrange a meeting with Horace, I performed with him and was accepted as the drummer on the next tour. It was a great learning experience working with him.

GM: In 1970 you worked with Miles Davis for the first time, on the equally-iconic Bitches Brew album. How did you originally connect with Davis and while working on that album, did you have any sense at all of how influential that release would become over such a wide musical scope, including jazz, rock and funk?
BC: Jack DeJonette introduced me to Miles and recommended that I take his place in Miles' band. I was working at the Village Gate in 1969 when all of this took place and I was definitely up for the musical challenge, of course. But, I also felt a need to be observant when taking part in the creation of the music, since the collaborators were all at an artistic level that I strove to attain. I was not disappointed as I learned quite a bit in a very short period of time. Mostly, the lessons had to do with timing as in "when to play what and when not to play what". In a musical environment like that you have no choice but to mature quickly. Regarding the success of the product that came from those sessions: I had no idea that they would be influential to the extent that they have become.

GM: In 1971 you played on guitarist John McLaughlin's solo album My Goal's Beyond, before you co-founded the jazz-fusion giant Mahavishnu Orchestra. Those three 70's Mahavishnu recordings (Inner Mounting Flame, Birds Of Fire and Between Nothingness and Eternity) were all groundbreaking fusion albums. How did that band change or influence your playing moving forward... and how I wish that original lineup (Cobham, McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, Rick Laird) could create music together again.
BC: Due to the fact that I had very little experience in performing within the odd meter environment at that time in my career, performing with Mahavishnu Orchestra exposed me to this dimension, which really helped shape the way that I envision myself contributing on a musical level with musicians today. As far as the band performing again, I doubt it but one never knows what tomorrow may bring.

GM: In 1976, you played on legendary bassist Stanley Clarke's School Days, yet another fusion favorite. How did you connect with Clarke and what stands out to you about the recording of that album?
BC: You know, I don't remember how I actually met Stanley, but I do remember that up until then, I had never heard anyone play so many notes in such a short period as I heard from Stanley. He certainly ushered in a new influx of ideas through the electric bass.

GM: You recorded two albums (1976 and 1978) with the legendary Sonny Rollins. How did that collaboration come about and what did you take away from your time with Rollins?
BC: I was hired to perform with Sonny by Orrin Keepnews at Fantasy Records. It was a studio date for me, but an honor to have been selected to work with someone of such great stature as Sonny.

GM: You have also had a prolific recording career as a band leader, having released some 45 titles between 1973 and 2010. Can you perhaps cite a couple of your favorite solo titles along the way and perhaps your favorite ensemble?
BC: My favorite ensemble is the one that I am currently working with. It features Christopher Cravero on piano and violin, Jean-Marie Ecay on guitars, Junior Gill on steel pan, Camelia Ben Naceur on keyboards, Michael Mondesir on bass. As for my solo recording, titles that stand out would be Spectrum, Crosswinds, Total Eclipse, The Traveller, By Design, Fruit From The Loom and Palindrome.

GM: How did you end up collaborating with Peter Gabriel in 1989 and how might it have been different working within that context?
BC: One day I arrived at a shop that was located near Paddington Station to have a midi device that they serviced checked. While waiting for them to fix the instrument Peter Gabriel walked in and said hello to me then asked me if I had time to help him with a project. I said yes, and this began a positive relationship that has lasted a long time. For me, there has been much to learn both by performing in collaboration and by being observant. So I am quite thankful for the opportunity to have the association.

GM: Please tell me about your current Billy Cobham Band?
BC: This band has performed in America, South America, South East Asia and all over Europe for the past six years. We have also recorded three projects - Fruit From The Loom, Palindrome and Live at the Leverkusen Jazz Festival. We've also released a DVD filmed from Leverkusen, Germany.