Billy Cobham: Rhythm Is A Sonic Mirror

Walter Kolosky By

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I watched, as the watched became the watchers; where the autistics effectively became the teachers for a brief few minutes.
Billy CobhamThe universe is engaged in a miraculous rhythm that is the ultimate timekeeper. Due to his pivotal role in an important new documentary film, Billy Cobham, a master timekeeper himself, is now more aware of this than he has ever been.

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 Mirror—a 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?

BillyBC: 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 time—both 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.

Billy CobhamBC: 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.


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