Born in Colón, Panama in 1944, Billy Cobham has contributed phenomenal rhythmic power and inventiveness to some of the greatest jazz-fusion groups, funk troupes, and rock acts, as well as masterminding several outstanding solo albums. Even if he'd only played on Mahavishnu Orchestra's Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, and Between Nothingness & Eternity, Cobham would still be a legend.
John McLaughlin's fusion ensemble epitomized the genre's superhuman virtuosity while lacing their mind-bogglingly complex compositions with a profound spirituality. But a drummer with Cobham's incomparable skills could never be constrained to one unit, so elite bandleaders like Miles Davis (Bitches Brew, Tribute to Jack Johnson), Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, and Jack Bruce sought his services and were rewarded with Billy's nuanced detonations behind the kit.
In recent years, Cobham has continued to release interesting new music as a leader while also performing old solo albums in live settings. For the latter, he resurrected his stunning debut full-length, Spectrum, in 2013. The album sold surprisingly well and proved that Cobham's composing chops were as formidable as his drumming. "Quadrant 4" is the ultimate speed-freak, jazz-rock jam (shout out to Tommy Bolin's guitar supernova) while tracks like "Stratus" and "Snoopy's Search/Red Baron" showed a deep understanding of funk, as the multitude of samples of these songs attests.
For this current tour, which includes four dates at Jazz Alley (March 8-11), Cobham will focus on the 1974 LP Crosswinds, a less overtly spectacular opus, but one still imbued with Cobham's expansive concepts of rhythm and melody within a slightly more subdued and Latin-oriented framework.
I had the great fortune to interview Cobham, first via Skype right before he and his band were going to perform at the Blue Note in Milano, Italy, and then when our connection became too erratic, by e-mail. I was kind of nervous.
The Stranger: What was your motivation for building the tour around the Crosswinds album?
Billy Cobham: The idea was to work on presenting the complete repertoire of each album I'd made, for as long as I could. I've made a lot of them, so I'm not expecting I'm going to be able to do all of these things for the rest of my life. But at least the Atlantic albums, I would try to get in the best [releases] I could, and cherrypick wherever else I could later, if I got that far.
So I started with the Spectrum album 40 years later, and I thought, let's take a shot at the Crosswinds project, because there are some pieces that I never played live, if at all, like “Spanish Moss” or “Savannah the Serene,” another ballad that we're not doing just yet, but we will do, if I have my way. We have “The Pleasant Pheasant,” “Heather,” and a couple of other tunes from the album that made it. Those combined with some other pieces that were not done on Spectrum 40, like “Taurean Matador,” I brought that back along with pieces that have never been recorded before and put on the market commercially. One is called “Under the Bowbuck Tree” and another one called “On the Move.” So there's a nice combination; it fits the character of each individual in the band [Paul Hanson on sax and bassoon, Scott Tibbs on keys, Fareed Haque on guitar, Tim Landers on bass]. That works very well.
Besides your solo career, which project provided you the best platform to fully explore/exploit your talents?
The Mahavishnu Orchestra. It opened the doors to developing specific ideas and expanding on them over a long period of time with a band. I had about two-and-a-half years to work with the same people. And a lot of things got accomplished in that period. I’ve never been able to do that again, where I was working with people at a specific level of proficiency that allowed me to explore a lot of musical territory. That was a real fluke.
How would you compare your experience with Mahavishnu Orchestra with what you did with Miles Davis? There was similar personnel, but obviously they had different leadership styles. Did you find it easier to work with Miles than with John McLaughlin?
Working under Miles, you tended to take his direction—use your imagination to create from what he provided you with, as a route to take in understanding what was happening. With Mahavishnu, you tended to react to the actions of your peers who were more your equals. So, in another way, you learn. It’s like being on a ski piste and being told by the teacher how to ski down a slope, and at the same time having your grandson, who’s like 5 years old, skiing next to you with no ski poles looking at you like you’re from another planet. "What’s your problem? You should be able to do this. I’m doing it; why can’t you do it?" It’s a quite different situation. All of a sudden you find yourself following your grandson, because the man becomes the child to the son.
“Inner Conflicts” is my favorite track of yours. Can you talk about your approach with the Inner Conflicts album? It’s somewhat of an anomaly in your solo catalog.
It came out of the fact that I was desperate to earn a living, which sounds kind of funny. In those days, if you made a record, it’s more than likely the record company would support a tour. Which meant you could get concert dates no matter what it was that you got at the end, in terms of a fee, but at least you were working. So you were taking from Peter to pay Paul, in essence. Out of that came a lot of creativity—out of desperation, because you had to live.
It’s funny: When you have to find a way to get food on the table, you become very imaginative. The next thing you know, I was making records like you wouldn’t believe, coming up with ideas that I didn’t even know I had. [Inner Conflicts] was one of them. I put a lot of things together with people I knew who could play and hoped for the best. They gave me a platform, a studio, to record. Since I wasn’t the top dog [at Atlantic Records], I did what I could. I came up with a couple of releases that have had lasting power. That’s what this is all about.
“Inner Conflicts” sounds to me like one of the least-commercial tracks that you’ve done. So it seems odd that you were thinking about putting food on the table with one of the strangest compositions in your catalog.
That’s a testament to the record-company executives who didn’t know one way or another, couldn’t care less because I wasn’t their main artist. So the way that deal went was, I was adding to their repertoire, to what they had to sell. They had money from other artists that they could pass to me. From what I understand, they had 10 solid artists they supported. Anybody else who came after that, whatever they could develop in terms of funds, the passed on to those 10 artists, and whatever was left over, they gave as a loan to the other artists. So you were always in debt to the record company, and you knew it! Because that was the game. It wasn’t about being in debt; it was about getting access to the funds so you could continue to create product. That was for those who knew what was happening. Most artists didn’t even know. Their ego was all about making a record and being able to show everybody they could make one. And then they’d get upset when couldn’t make anything for it.
You can take a look at what happens now when you could sell maybe a thousand records at $20 a pop and make $20,000 or 20,000 euro, and it’s yours. If you sold a thousand records at Capitol Records, you wouldn’t have a contract. And you would get 5 percent of wholesale—not retail of whatever that thousand would be. By the time that filtered through to you, that might be a few hundred dollars. But if you made the record yourself, you’d be in direct competition with the established record companies and that’s something that they didn’t like you to do. You gross $20,000 and give the government 35 percent, you still made a lot more money than you would’ve ever made with the record company.
How do you feel about having your music sampled? Do you feel like you’ve been properly compensated, or ripped off? The whosampled website lists 114 samples of your songs.
Is that right? I only know about two or three. [Not gonna lie: I laughed pretty hard here.]
Mr. Cobham, you are very popular with hiphop and electronic-music producers.
Wow. Wow. The thing that I found is, I’m pretty comfortable with it. It’s like involuntary advertising. I get 10 cents here, 15 cents there, or 50 percent of something. If and or when it shows up, it’s always found money. So, I don’t worry about that. The main thing is to try to express myself in the best ways that I can, through any means that I can. If they want to help, god bless ’em. If Jay Z doesn’t do it, somebody else will do it. That’s cool. I’m good with that. If somebody says, "Hey, I know that song through so and so," maybe we get another gig. That’s good enough for me.
Do you have any crazy George Duke tour stories? [Cobham and the late keyboardist recorded the sporadically brilliant "Live" On Tour In Europe together in 1976.]
No. George Duke was an absolute angel. Never a problem. Did everything correct. He even had wings that were white.
He seems like a crazy dude. But maybe that’s a misconception, because he was in Frank Zappa's band in the '70s...
[Duke] was really straightforward, and he left us too early.
Who were some of your favorite musicians to play with? I know there was a huge number of them. Every time I read about you, I’m more astonished by the range of musicians with whom you’ve played.
I’ve loved working with Ron Carter, Jan Hammer, Level 42. Of course, Peter Gabriel. Tony Levin. I’ve been blessed to do a lot of things like that.
What was it like to work with Miles Davis?
He tended to give direction by his body language. He didn’t speak a lot, but you understood where he wanted to go, what he was seeking to achieve, why you were there, because he brought you there. He studied you and he understood what he wanted to get from you. He gave you music that he thought would be in your wheelhouse.
[Skype interview ends; e-mail interview begins.]
In the liner notes to Rudiments: The Billy Cobham Anthology, you talk about your frustration with John McLaughlin not allowing his vision to be swayed by other musicians in the band. Would you say he was tyrannical about Mahavishnu’s direction?
Also, I saw him performing Mahavishnu songs live recently, and I lamented your absence. Are you on speaking terms with him?
How do you feel about Love Devotion Surrender [the 1973 McLaughlin/Carlos Santana album, a spiritual-jazz landmark on which Cobham drummed]?
I don’t remember the recording’s contents past the positive impression that Carlos Santana made on me when I heard his guitar sound. In my opinion, it’s the best-sounding guitar I have ever heard. I think it’s one of the best things JM and Santana have done.
With “Quadrant 4”—what drugs were y'all on? There’s no way humans can do this without chemical enhancements. Or am I totally off-base?
YOU ARE TOTALLY OFF-BASE.
Regarding “Inner Conflicts,” this track reminds me very much of the French electronic-prog-rock group Heldon. Had you heard them before you recorded it? If not, check out their mid-’70s albums Un Rêve Sans Conséquence Spéciale and Interface to see what I mean.
Never heard of them.
What has been the most artistically challenging project/situation you've been in during your musical career?
Working with Peter Gabriel and understanding what was required to make his music comfortable for him and everyone else to play. Making myself imitate as much as I could the template set by Manu Katché.
Can you talk about your impressions of playing with rock musicians? After that Quincy Jones interview in which he denounced the Beatles, it would be interesting to get your take on their abilities versus those of jazz musicians, seeing as you played with Tommy Bolin, Jack Bruce, Allan Holdsworth, various Grateful Dead members, etc.
The good ones play what they know from the heart with great timing and understanding of what to play when. They don’t play like an academic who emulates what was presented in a walled institution. They play from the experiences acquired in the real world.
What do you think is the future of jazz? Do you feel optimistic about it?
This genre will be around as long as the human race is around.
What’s the next album you’re going to take on tour?
I can’t think that far in advance but, I suspect I will take a shot at presenting Total Eclipse in some form.
Why did you move to Switzerland?
In search of truth. Still searching...