Drummer, composer, producer and bandleader Billy Cobham has played every style of music, from military marches and mainstream jazz to Afro-Cuban and the Grateful Dead. Best known for his jazz-rock innovations through his work with Dreams, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his own groups, Cobham has spent the past 29 years living in Switzerland, which he values for its peaceful lifestyle and as a convenient jumping off point for world tours. Cobham’s legendarily strong technique is matched by his strong opinions about music, which he was not shy about sharing.
1. Gil Evans
“Las Vegas Tango” (from The Individualism of Gil Evans, Verve). Evans, arranger, piano; Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, trumpets; Jimmy Cleveland, Tony Studd, trombones; Ray Alonge, French horn; Bill Barber, tuba; Garvin Bushell, Eric Dolphy, Bob Tricarico, Steve Lacy, saxophones; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, bass; Elvin Jones, drums. Recorded in 1964.
Before: Gil. Nobody writes like that, the chords and the phrasing. [as drums enter] That’s Elvin. What’s really funny about this is that Elvin has a way of playing in 3 while the rest of the band is feeling 2. Gil told me he likes to write and play on the edge of chaos but without falling in. He had this freedom and his using Elvin provides a looseness that could not happen with any other player. So Gil would match the music with the musician. I haven’t mentioned the bass player because the bass player is not listening to what’s going on. The bass player’s in his own world. I can feel that he’s reading what’s on the paper, and it’s correct. Now we have an oboe or English horn player in the mix, which means that everything’s being played very softly. That could be Kenny Burrell. This sounds like early to mid-1960s. You can tell by the quality of the recording that a lot of concessions were made, the technology wasn’t there. And if they did two or three takes of that, it was a lot. These guys know exactly what’s going on, they know how Gil likes to phrase. It’s beautiful.
When you were playing with Gil, what kind of direction would he give the players?
None [chuckles]. What he did was put the music in front of you and then we’d start. Gil didn’t even look at me till after the gig was over. I still have the book, if you want to call it that. It was an inter-office envelope with a few pages of material. On Hotel Me Blues there was a scale and the rest of the chart was blank. That was the drum part. [laughs] Somebody counted off this really slow tempo and the whole idea of this blues was that the whole band had vibrato on every note. This was the funniest stuff I had ever heard. I was almost on the floor laughing, trying to play this. It was like the ultimate challenge to try and fit a square peg into a round hole with this tune and you had to go with it.
After: Gil had a personality you could identify with through his writing; slow, methodical, yet lyrical. He loved to dabble in the world of slowness. He was like a musical sloth; slow moving, deliberate. He could be considered in the category of a Borodin, but for jazz. I can envision lying on my back on the ground and looking up at clouds moving slowly.
2. Bill Stewart
“Opening Portals (from Incandescence, Pirouet). Stewart, drums; Kevin Hayes, piano; Larry Goldings, organ. Recorded in 2006.
Before: [raises eyebrows] Two keyboards and drums? Is that Jack DeJohnette? What I find very interesting here is that everybody is listening to each other. Where you hit a wall is when you listen but you don’t do anything with what you hear. These guys are listening and there’s an inter-relationship. The organist is right there and the ideas are intertwined in a way that’s very harmonic and unified, where they’re working as a unit. My big problem with jazz is that it’s a very selfish platform, because there are so many intellectuals involved. And those intellectuals are always trying to go “Me, me, me, I, I, I.” They’re there for themselves first, because it’s such a difficult platform to stand out in. The ones who are successful–and I go back to Gil–he stays in the background. He writes something where everything is forced to go in the same direction and it all works. When you get something like that in a small group, it’s magic, so it’s nice to hear it here. I thought the tune was great; the contrapuntalism, the inter-relationship between the lines and what the drummer was playing.
What made you think it was Jack?
It was the freeness of the drummer. But Jack is not that disciplined. Jack will give you a lot of different looks. He has an arsenal of ideas, never to be repeated. I haven’t heard him in a long time, and in the context I’ve heard him, he’s had to just lay it down for Keith [Jarrett]. This drummer is quite competent.
After: Yeah, this works, really nice.
3. Danilo Perez
“Across the Crystal Sea (from Across The Crystal Sea, Emarcy). Perez, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; Luis Quintero, percussion; orchestra arranged and conducted by Claus Ogerman. Recorded in 2007.
Before: [listens for first 2 minutes] Maria Schneider? I hear Gil Evans’s influence here in the orchestration. Then I started to hear Herbie inside this, but I’d expect to hear Herbie play fewer chords, more linearly. I like it. In a way, it’s funny that he would use bongo in an arrangement like this with the beat that far upfront. [whistles along with the melody]. That’s very interesting stuff. This person’s on a journey someplace but all the bits and pieces aren’t all together yet. I’m assuming that all the notes are in the right place, so now it’s about the journey. If the group stays together–and it’s 90-10 it won’t–where do they go from here? So the anticipation is always heavy with me.
After: [laughter] He was telling me about this last January down in Panama. Are these his tunes? I hear this as a Claus Ogerman idea. Danilo wouldn’t have been thinking of this direction. He’s going someplace else. He’s a Panamanian. He’s much, much freer. I mean Danilo, in the bat of an eye, can be straight up and down. No problem. I have to pick this up, man, to check it out. Fascinating. Excellent. That’s a real feather in his cap. So far, everything I’ve heard is fun to listen to.
4. Cindy Blackman
“Abracadabra” (from Music For The New Millennium, Sacred Sound). Blackman, drums; J.D. Allen, tenor saxophone; Carlton Holmes, keyboards; George Mitchell, bass. Recorded in 2004, published 2008.
Before: There’s nothing there for me. This is jazz in a way that I don’t particularly care for. [heavy sigh] It sounds like five individuals.
After: She should know better than that. But Tony’s [Williams] days are long gone. That was his Achilles heel. He did not play listening to people, he played loud and louder. He had a record called Ego, and that was his big problem, not listening. Wrong message. When he was with Miles it was about, hey, we’ve got a 16, 17-year old brat here playing drums and he’s got this new idea. At every other station was an extremely disciplined musician. And along comes this brash, young person that could be marketed and they put him in the limelight when, in fact, he had great ideas but he hadn’t been able to really mold them yet. And out of that came a lot of us who learned from those things, myself being one. The one thing I couldn’t get under my belt was why I had to play so loud all the time and overshadow everybody to get my point across. The dynamics of music are very important. One is to know when to play loud and when to play soft. The other is to know how to dynamically present through the perception of your ideas and your thoughts via music. If you can’t do that, you lose and you’ll be continually frustrated. You’re looking to achieve a goal that you’re not worthy of because you don’t have all the parts required to make it happen. You need to know when to play and when not to play, and how to mold and present those ideas when the time is right.
So how do you learn that?
By keeping your big mouth shut and watching and listening to other people and what they do. And learn from the bad and the good. You go around and you listen, you take the chip off your shoulder and you put yourself in the position of an extremely sensitive mental environment; Yeah, I’m not that good, I need to learn, I need to ask questions.
Doesn’t that take self-awareness and humility to sublimate your ego enough to listen, to learn from others and really communicate?
In a word, yes.
The music business encourages the ego to come out because it’s easier to market.
The jazz music business.
But even in rock and pop and hip hop.
You may be right, man. But I still believe that people are responsible for their actions. With Cindy, she’s playing; she looks the part, all great. But Tony’s dead and Gretsch drums are a drag, as far as I’m concerned. [They] always have been because they do not sing. They represent a time past and the hoodwinking of the percussion industry because their drums are not very good, they’re not made well. Ok? And on top of that, you get somebody who doesn’t know how to tune them even if they did sing and all you’ve got is an individual going ka-plop ka-pop ka-plop. For what? Melodies on top of melodies, individuals standing there posturing and the music is telling me these guys really don’t know what they’re doing. All the notes are right. It’s loud. It’s the same volume, it’s just organized confusion. Talk to me. If you want to do that, incorporate some dynamics. Give me a conversation that’s not monophonic. I don’t need this. No, not at all. In a word, boring. And what makes it criminal, is that she’s capable of a heck of a lot more than that. She’s got a brain; she’s just got to be creative. That’s not creative. So now you’ve got something on a record. So what! Everybody makes records. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
5. George Duke
“Mercy” (from Dukey Treats, on Heads Up). Duke, vocals; keyboards; Byron Miller, bass; Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, drums; Jef Lee Johnson, Wah Wah Watson, guitar; Sheila E, percussion; Josie James, Lynn Davis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, vocals; Everette Harp, alto saxophone; Larry Williams, tenor saxophone; Michael “Patches” Stewart, trumpet; Isley Remington, trombone; Kamasi Washington, tenor sax solo. Released in 2008.
Before: There’s an articulation problem here. I feel everyone is rushing to tell me a story. They need to slow this down. Make it about 115 or 110. It’s about 120 now. I can’t understand what they’re talking about, which frustrates me. They show a tremendous amount of enthusiasm but very little in terms of dimension. It only goes one place. The epitome of grooves like this, aside from Parliament-Funkadelic when they’re on, would be Chic. They’re a great band to check out because they have a way of controlling things. Another band would be Tower of Power, for all the years they’ve been around, they just have an innate sense of making things feel good. Everything lays well and you get the dance element back. This is the North American version of the Latin American thing, so if you want to call it funk or R&B, when people feel good and they dance, they dance in a certain tempo and the flow is very, very round. This is very static. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s too fast.
After: Yeah. Ok.
What do you think of George as a producer?
[long pause] I think he’s pretty good, and not just because he’s got longevity. He has a very special style that’s uniquely his. Aside from the marketing, I mean he’s got a good team, so they promote George Duke. But musically he’s got some good ideas. He always has, very consistent. But there will be things I disagree with. I can hear it here, they don’t need to be playing that fast. It’s just not coming out that well. They could slow it down just a tad and they’d get a heck of a lot more out of it. Sometimes it’s in the simplicity of stuff. Getting the singers to speak more clearly, working on the vocals so that they are articulate, without losing that certain personality. I think George goes for a hit on every tune. This is about making money, man. If the record can have ten or twelve hits then by god, why not?
6. Paul Motian
“Till We Meet Again” (from Village Vanguard Vol. II, Winter & Winter). Motian, drums; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Greg Osby, alto saxophone; Masabumi Kikuchi, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass. Recorded in 2006.
Before: [leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his head, laughs]. I love it. I don’t know who it is but it sounds like everybody is really listening to each other. It’s really funny, man. In comparison to that other thing with Cindy, it just makes sense somehow. Aw, man, this is great [laughter]. I know all these musicians, all these sounds but I just don’t know their names. It’s wonderful. That could have been George Adams. It almost sounds like Billy Higgins in the background. The piano player sounds like he’s studied with Monk. I love it. How can I say this? You see a Picasso after looking at a fake and you know that that’s it. Everything falls into place. It’s that kind of feeling, the real deal. It’s not contrived. Two of the things that I’ve heard are contrived. It’s like; we gotta make some money here, or in memory of Tony. Yeah right. I don’t think so. It’s not the same. There’s a big difference. The sounds are real. It felt good. They knew how to make it happen. There are very few avant-garde players who can really play avant-garde. I could listen to that all night.
After: Yay, Paul! Cool. Hmm, a Gretsch drum set. He’s the only one who could make that thing sound good. This is a good record, man.
7. Joe Zawinul + the Zawinul Syndicate
“Bimoya” (from World Tour, Tone Center). Zawinul, keyboards, vocals; Victor Bailey, bass; Gary Paulson, guitar; Paco Sery, drums; Pape Abdou Seck, vocals. Recorded in 1997.
Before: That’s Joe. He’s the only person who would try something like this. And he almost pulls it off. If he was younger, it’d be spot on. But the timing is just a smidgeon off with the rhythmic stuff and the Vocoder. Joe’s personality is very special, an Austrian-African personality [laughter]. We were friends, though I didn’t see him very often. His compositional concepts were incredible. Joe, Wayne, oh man they make you cry, melodies that will last forever, so beautiful.
After: I have this. Only Joe would phrase like that. Again for me, I’m in this mode right now about tempos, but there’s an urgency about this that is just unnecessary. But that’s just me. They could just lay back a smidgeon more. I want it to dance.
Do people tend to push tempo in a live setting?
Yes, absolutely. It’s just normal. You have an adrenalin flow that’s a little bit out of hand so you don’t always feel the tempo. Your own personality takes over and you put it where you want it to be. And I think it works against the music. As soon as everyone’s in sync and in total agreement about the tempo, boy it’s magic.
How often does that happen?
Rare. Last night, I talked to my guys and said you’ve got to back off. You need to hang with me but I don’t want to have to tell you that. It’s a matter of discipline and really being in tune with the group concept. And when you have hired guns, they’re offering a mercenary talent. But they’re not playing for the band; they’re playing for themselves first. It’s a spoon-fed situation mentally.
When you want the band to all feel the time together, do you want them to feel it in the center of the beat?
I want them to feel it the way I’m feeling it. That changes from tune to tune, day to day. We all go the same direction I’m going ’cause I’m paying the checks.
8. Baby Laurence
“Baby at Birdland” (from Special Tap Dance, Black & Blue). Laurence, tap dance; Paul Quinichette, tenor saxophone; Nat Pierce, piano; Al Hall, bass; Skeeter Best, guitar; Osie Johnson, drums. Recorded in 1959.
Before: Sounds like Pres [Lester Young]. Bill Robinson? Wow, what a combination. Tap dancer has an incredible sense of timing. The rhythm section has each other to fall on but the tap dancer has to be on the outside. Everything is straight up. You got me, man. The timing of the dancer is very, very interesting, very strong. The dancer is thinking two and the band is feeling three. It’s kind of a throwback to the be-bop era. It’s like listening to Milt Jackson play a dotted eighth, sixteenth solo on Sunflower. Very interesting concept.
After: Right. That was the other guy I was trying to thinking of. [notes the drummer with admiration] I’ve never worked with a tap dancer.
9. Sonny Rollins
“The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” (from Newk’s Time, Blue Note). Rollins, tenor saxophone; Philly Joe Jones, drums. Recorded in 1957.
That’s Philly Joe. Is this Sonny? Oh yeah. Woo! Philly has this thing, he played mostly snare. [Among] those guys at that time, even Max, probably the only cat that I heard that paid attention to tone and the toms was Buddy Rich, and maybe Louis Bellson. Everybody else, the toms were just there as a springboard for the snare drum performance. Bass drum was virtually a non-entity; everything was coming off the snare drum and the hi-hat. I’m completely the opposite. All my toms are voices that are very dominant, if not more so than the snare drum. And the snare drum is my springboard for them. That defined an era, the way Philly played with Paul Chambers or people like that. When I hear him and Sonny together, Sonny is actually his tom-toms. The tones that are not speaking on the drum-set, it’s unnecessary because the saxophone’s got it. Sonny’s always been an extremely rhythm-conscious musician. These are personalities. You hear them and you say that’s Philly, that’s Sonny. That’s the biggest tribute you can pay to anybody, to have a recognizable personality through sound. The notes were not on the paper. This was not contrived. If you can sell a million records of this, so be it. Tempo was right, this is how they felt. That’s how it made me feel.
This piece originally appeared in JazzTimes in the fall of 2008.