Interview of Cobham by Bob Glassenberg for Soul and Jazz, May 1976 titled "I'm playing with musicians I consider to be friends for the first time".
Here is this musician who has made six albums under his own name since 1974, and has been the backbone of countless others in the past decade who says he would have been a baseball player if he hadn't been a percussionist. And he is believable, except for one thing. It is understandable that Billy Cobham, perhaps the leading drummer in music today, might have been a baseball player, because he grew up in the Panamanian section of New York where you were either a boxer or a baseball player. It's all logical until you see him onstage creating a barrage of rhythms with his drums, or someone plays one of his six albums for you. Then you see that Billy Cobham is not a baseball player, but still an athlete. You have to be in good shape to keep up with the musicians he's played with just in the past five years; the BRECKER BROTHERS in DREAMS, MILES DAVIS, MAHAVISHNU JOHN McLAUGHLIN; and of course now, his own group which he co-leads with George Duke, a premier musician in his own write.
"I'm having a good time", says Cobham discussing what he's doing musically."I'm really trying to project my innermost thoughts, my heritage, the music that I like to play, places that I like to go. LIFE AND TIMES, my newest album, is representative of some of the places I have been." The title cut opens the album with all the force of a man who has seen where he's been and knows where he is going. The moving rhythms carry throughout most of the cuts on the LP. In fact, Cobham's energy is endless and his melodic tones add great depth to the album and its individual tunes. This is Cobham's album and just one listen lets us know it. He dominates. There is no fat to Cobham's composition or style. By the time EAST BAY, the last cut on the first side, comes up the listener is caught into the flow that is definitely Billy Cobham. And he has an advantage as a percussionist and a writer, because he can come from the inside out, knowing the entire rhythmic structure out front and placing the notes so they fit perfectly with that structure, while even allowing for the musicians surrounding him to take solos of unlimited proportions. "I'm playing with musicians I consider , for the first time in my life, to be my friends. You know, people I can sit down and talk to off stage as well as on stage." Seeing him live makes his point obvious. There is instant communication. "The other evening Alphonso Johnson, [the bass player], started playing a shuffle. I thought it was [Miles Davis'] JACK JOHNSON and, as it turned out it was a shuffle off Stanley's [Clarke] album. That sounded so much like JACK JOHNSON , and there were some things Alphonso played that I had not realized, " explains Cobham. "Then John Scofield started to play some McLaughlin licks off JACK JOHNSON because he thought it was that cut and Alphonso played Stanley's solo from his first album and that really freaked me out ". I said "you mean to tell me Stanley got some of that stuff from Miles? And then it hit me that Tony Williams was playing drums on that cut and all of these things started falling together as to why certain musical thoughts followed one another in that particular shuffle which I had taken for granted." So his playing is communication not only with the audience, but with the group as well. And this leads Billy Cobham to endless realization. He sees an entire evolvement of the jazz audiences from five years ago to today. How it has grown and some of the reasons why." There were certain things that I was doing with Miles that I didn't know then. There were certain things that Miles was doing the people didn't know then, that now they are beginning to realize, and Miles was someplace else already and so am I. But now, the audience has a foundation to think about the music they hear, whereas before, when the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA was around and doing its thing a lot of people didn't realize it and were watching it and getting off on what they saw and not what they heard and really felt. Now that the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA is gone , they are really relating to what we did, but only through the auspices of RETURN TO FOREVER, WEATHER REPORT, GEORGE DUKE/BILLY COBHAM and whatever.Because now we're here and the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA is sort of like the foundation for people to really relate to this kind of stuff."
Cobham is "funny funk" as he calls it, something less predictable than the funk of the disco scene, but more funky than the music of RETURN TO FOREVER which Cobham affectionately describes as classically decadent. "It's a much more concert-oriented organization", he continues. "We do not compete with each other musically, though. There is a musical parallel in which we don't get in the way of each other. We could be on tour together, if we didn't each have so much equipment. We are really two different groups." Having played with the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA , in fact, being the only element of the group at the time who had no European roots, Cobham gave a balance to the other members and their music. He was the alter flow, the rhythmic element that gave meaning to the other elements of the Orchestra, setting the music into a position with which the audience could more easily identify. This is the side of the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA that has been overlooked. It is becoming more evident, however, as time passes that the members of the original Orchestra were each fine musicians in their own right, who banded together to bring people a new insight into instrumental music.And, along with WEATHER REPORT, the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA set a pattern which is followed today. Most of the jazz groups that are popular today contain several musicians who have albums of their own. They are together to tour and bring their audiences both their skills as individuals and as a group.
"I feel that we're trying to get the people to listen to any artist.Like a painter who has a painting in a museum will look at it ",says Cobham. " He'll not only want the people to buy his painting, but he'll want them to remember him. Not just when he's dead, but now. He wants to paint some more, he wants more people to come and look at his paintings. He wants acknowledgment. That's what we want. We want acknowledgment because we are artists. It's important. We have something to say. We're trying to express ourselves not verbally, but musically.
A completely different medium, another dimension. For me, I like being able to take people on trips that are head trips. Now that's possible for me because I've been able to go through maybe one or two myself. I've actually been able to play and play myself into a situation where I wasn't part of my body anymore. That hasn't been very often, but I have accomplished it from time to time.""I make albums for the folks , but I make them for myself too, please. First, it has to come from inside me. I have to really feel that it's something I want to project. I just don't sit down and say, well I think this is something they like, and put it down. I have to feel something about what I'm writing. So I'll get inspiration from my daughters-anyone-and it could be something negative. And I'll get pissed off and write about it. That's how I may feel - and I'll turn it into something positive. I feel that everything I write is something positive, eventually."
It is easy to see from speaking with him that this positivity has been his driving force for years, through all his commercials and playing as a sideman for many, many artists. It is easy to see that he was watching and learning whatever he could from every experience he had. He just kept moving ahead to the point he has reached today, a musician who can stand up and be out front of everyone else, but who is willing to take people with him and allow them to grow. " I thought it always was inevitable", says Cobham. "From the standpoint of a percussionist, he gives a lot. He's always been the cat that gets put down when often times the other musicians have a poor sense of time and cannot play alone. They use the percussionist as a scapegoat and I feel this is very wrong. And it's time for a change and it's happening."
Cobham has been instrumental in creating that change . And he will continue to be at the vanguard ow whatever changes are happening in the music scene because he is a leader, willing to take chances and willing to help people understand what is going on. Since the artist should always have the last word, these are his: "Listen to music with open ears."
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