Billy Cobham: Rhythm Is A Sonic Mirror
“ I watched, as the watched became the watchers; where the autistics effectively became the teachers for a brief few minutes. ”
Early in Cobham's career he played with Horace Silver, Miles Davis and in the pre-fusion band Dreams. But he is best-known as the propulsive drummer of the genre- twisting Mahavishnu Orchestra, who ruled the jazz-rock world and even made some of the pop charts over thirty-five years ago. The band's music is currently undergoing a remarkable renaissance in which Cobham himself has now taken part.
Under his own name, Cobham recorded two historic records, Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973) and Crosswinds (Atlantic, 1974). After Mahavishnu, he has performed with his own bands and musicians including Herbie Hancock, George Duke and many, many others. He is one of the busiest drummers on earth today; constantly touring or putting on heavily attended drum clinics.
The last couple of years have found Cobham involved in a wide variety of projects that have focused even more deeply on the percussive rhythms that he has spent the last half-century discovering and reinventing. This has given him both the chance to revisit his celebrated musical past and to discover how his rhythms may affect the world around him. Cobham is the central figure of Sonic Mirrora groundbreaking new documentary film. The Hollywood Reporter says the film is "...a feel-good world music documentary with the potential to be the next Buena Vista Social Club.
All About Jazz spoke with Cobham about his latest efforts and how they fit into his life and drumming legacy.
All About Jazz: You have two CD projects in release that are receiving very good reviews. Meeting of the Spirits- A Tribute to the Mahavishnu Orchestra (In & Out, 2007) was recorded with Germany's HR Big Band last year. It featured interpretations of classic Mahavishnu pieces, ably arranged by keyboardist and composer Colin Towns. There has been a huge resurgence of interest in the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the last couple of years. But fans never expected you to be a part of it.
Billy Cobham: About three or four months prior, I was approached by the director of the Hessicher Rundfunk Big Band, Olaf Stötzler, to collaborate on a project that would feature the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I didn't believe that I could play that music again. I had a discussion about my feelings with keyboardist and drummer Gary Husband. He got me thinking about the project as an object of curiosity. He told me it would be like revisiting music that I played thirty years ago. And thinking of what I could do if I had the chance to play it now.
AAJ: I have heard you were quite pleased with the experience. How did you approach the Mahavishnu music in a big band situation?
BC: Though we did play at least one composition from the second Mahavishnu, that [drummer] Narada Michael Walden wrote, I found that I played less; in a more minimalist way, than in the original band. I also found that the notes in my contribution had more meaning for me. I discovered that I retained the idea of playing the music and relived the images that they recalled in a more positive way for a longer period of timeboth on and off stage. Maybe this is why I consider Meeting of the Spirits a very special recording. It represents my past history.
AAJ: A year later you played Mahavishnu again with the HR Band. But this time you were joined by your band-mate from the original Mahavishnu lineup, violinist Jerry Goodman. You had not played together since 1978.
BC: Performing with Jerry Goodman was very positive. It was surprising that we would retain so much of the connection we had from performing together all those years ago. I could hear Jerry's maturity in the notes. This told me that we had each come a long way because of our individual experiences. It is one thing to speak of this theoretically and yet another to physically experience it with someone else.
[Note: For his part, Jerry Goodman says of the experience and chemistry, "I actually wasn't that surprised. I always felt there was a special connection. There was a challenge playing the Mahavishnu music in that context. But it felt natural to be playing it with Billy. It was sort of like going home.
Cobham's retrospective of his Mahavishnu past will continue with a scheduled performance in March of 2008 in Australia, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. He will be joined once again by arranger Towns, who this time will perform as well. Guitarist Frank Gambale is also scheduled to play with them. The Orchestra will play Mahavishnu music and some of Cobham's compositions.]
AAJ: The Drum N Voice 2 (Nicolosi, 2006) CD has you joined by many fine guest musicians, including Jan Hammer from the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. Many of these collaborations did not take place in the same studio.
BC: This project was recorded by me tracking patterns in the recording studio alone. The musicians were later added after compositions were developed around those patterns. That part of the recording process may have come one year after I laid down my tracks. The producers wanted it this way. I was very curious as to how they intended to knit their concept together. I am very interested in these kinds of projects, but I realize that they can be very time-consuming, and have their own pitfalls if one is not careful. Of course, you can get sidetracked and hung up in all sorts of delays. It pays to be very focused, as you have to be in any recording situation. In comparison to the first CD, I believe this one to be more of me as it takes a few more risks while still maintaining the groove "in the pocket. Overall, I'd say that I am pleased with the results.
AAJ: You are working on another new project.
BC: It will be called Fruit from the Loom and put out under my own name. It will include many artists whom I have performed with in the past like Ernie Watts, Dave Samuels, Randy Brecker, Carmelia Ben Nasur, Frank Gambale, Victor Bailey, Jean-Marie Ecay, George Duke, Christophe Cravero, Junior Gill, Stefan Rademacher, Guy Barker, Marco Lobo and others. Much of the music on this project reflects how life for me has changed over the past ten years or so since my last individual project, Focused (Cleopatra, 1999), was released.
[Note: Perhaps it is Cobham's dedicated involvement in the making of the recently released documentary film Sonic Mirror, from respected director Mika Kaurismäki, which will prove to be his most rewarding and important musical experience. Sonic Mirror attempts to show the importance of rhythm as a tool of social and psychic understanding. Billy Cobham's performances are at the core of the movie.
Kaurismäki and Cobham were introduced to each other by Kaurismäki's sister many years ago. The idea for doing a movie about Cobham and his music took root back in 2001. Kaurismäki says, "The idea was first to make a more classic portrayal of Billy Cobham and his career. But then we started to think of other ways of doing it. We finally decided to do a film about Billy and some of his projects and focusing on rhythm and music as communication and universal language.
Cobham and Kaurismäki began looking for sponsors by approaching different cultural organizations. It took about four years of fund-raising, filming and editing before the film was ready in 2007. The film had its premiere in Switzerland this past spring and is slowly making its way through the Scandinavian countries. Its full release schedule is still to be determined.]
BC: As usual, "money and time to complete such a project is always at the heart of this type of thing. We could have used a lot more money, which would have helped us govern the time factor better from many aspects. I found it tough to get into a rhythm of thought around this project. I had to continue to think about everyday aspects of my life; while not letting myself become too optimistic regarding the positive factors surrounding Sonic Mirror. Even now I find myself speaking guardedly, because I am still surprised that the film has been released.
AAJ: The director wanted to make a documentary about how rhythm, your drumming, would affect different social and cultural groups. Did you and Mika choose specific destinations for the filming or were they planned around your extensive touring itinerary?
BC: I remember discussing locations that would be "must have spots with Mika. So, we ended up with a short wish list of possibilities. The list included Nigeria, but that country was thought to be too volatile to work in. We reluctantly backed away and instead brought the musicians to Switzerland for the project involving the autistic community near Bern. Because of his major connections in Brazil and my affinity for the music of that region, Mika and I settled upon including that musical environment in the film; along with Finland, Mika's birthplace. We wanted to choose radically different social environments for the musical presentations so that we could drive home the idea of music being an alternative communication to other social applications and various therapeutic processes. In this way the main point of the movie would be driven home.
AAJ: What is the difference between recording an album and being followed all over the world by a film crew?
BC: One has no time to get into a "rhythm. You take the time and space available to you and do the best you can with it.
[Note: According to Kaurismäki, Cobham was very involved in the cause and the direction of the film. "Billy was part of the creative process from the beginning and he approved our script and concept. It was very much Billy's point, that music is the universal language. I believe that the film proved it. This is especially so of the workshop with the autistic people which made a great impression on him - and on all of us involved.]
AAJ: You played in several different cultural and social contexts to gauge the reaction of the listeners. In one case, you played for people with autism. What do you think the listeners took away from these encounters? What did you take away?
BC: I learned, again, to take life one step at a time. I watched, as the watched became the watchers; where the autistics effectively became the teachers for a brief few minutes. They were deeply touched by their exposure to the music. This confirmed to me that music is the universal language and can be used to help bridge the gap between all who live on this planet. In this way the experience made me a stronger person with a better understanding of how the world turns. I believe that the project really made a strong impact in many areas of the social environment. But it remains to be seen what the future holds for the film's impact should there be any on the world populace.
[Note: Kaurismäki says, "It was clear from the beginning, that Billy would be the focal point of the film. I have the feeling that Billy liked our concept, not only presenting him as a great jazz drummer, but also as an artist, who's constantly looking for new directions, influences and ways to use musiclike the use of music as a therapeutic tool. I also believe that it was an important 'journey' for him personally. It was a kind of a 'back to the roots' trip. ]
AAJ: During the four long years of this endeavor, was there a particular event that stood out for you more than others, that still stays with you?
BC: The time spent with my father. It was the last time we spent together before he died.
[Note: In fact, sadly, Cobham's mother recently passed away as well. Both his parents appear in the film. Cobham's dad was a pianist, and had given his son his first paying gig at age eight. His mother had been supportive since beat one. So to Cobham, Sonic Mirror reflects the sights, sounds and memories of his own life's rhythm just as much as it does the rhythm of the universe. He realizes that the universal cadence moves on. You are powerless to stop it because you are a part of it. You must continue playing; hoping your music has a positive impact.]
BC: Sonic Mirror verifies the value of music as an important factor in this world. If used for the greater good it can be a powerful ally.
Billy Cobham, Meeting of the Spirits: A Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra (In & Out, 2007)
Billy Cobham and Others,The Drum N Voice 2 (Nicolosi, 2006)
Frank Gambale, Raison D'Etre (Wombat, 2004)
Billy Cobham, Focused (Cleopatra, 1999)
Larry Coryell, Spaces Revisited (Shanachie, 1997)
Billy Cobham, Stratus (Inaukustik, 1981)
John McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist (Columbia, 1978)
Billy Cobham, Inner Conflicts (Atlantic, 1977
Stanley Clarke, School Days (Epic, 1976)
Billy Cobham, MA Funky Thide of Sings (Atlantic, 1975)
Billy Cobham, Crosswind (Atlantic, 1974)
Larry Coryell, Spaces (Vanguard, 1974)
Billy Cobham, Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973)
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1972)
Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971)
Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1970)
Dreams, Dreams (Columbia, 1970)
Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, My Goals Beyond (Ryko, 1970)
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969)