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Billy Cobham's Art of 5

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Billy Cobham and The Art of 5
Jazz Alley; Seattle
March 6th, 2003

I came to Billy Cobham not through Mahavishnu, but through video footage of him playing with Horace Silver’s group in the late 60s. Initially I mistook him for Roger Humphries, who of course had appeared on some of Silver’s well-known albums during that decade. I was later corrected by a friend of mine, who not only told me that it was indeed Cobham, but that he “swung his ass off.” This comment was delivered with a mix of reverence and surprise, as if my friend couldn’t quite see how the volatile, propulsive Cobham of Mahavishnu could also have provided the swinging and funky undergirding for a group like Silver’s.

Soon enough I got into Mahavishnu, and my memories of Cobham the swinger quickly evaporated. Here was a drummer with power, technique, finesse–well, you’ve heard it all before. The main thing is that I forgot Cobham could play “jazz” and play it well–that he could, as my friend put it, “swing his ass off.” Not that I believed that he couldn’t; I just labeled him as a fusion guy and left it at that. And my opinion was further corroborated when I heard albums like Spectrum and Crosswinds.

Then I heard Flight Time, a live record from the early 80s. Cobham swings quite ably on that album, which served as a reminder to me that he wasn’t just a “fusion guy.” It also gave me the feeling that I should go see Billy Cobham should I get the chance. Which I did, last night at Seattle’s Jazz Alley.

The group is call Billy Cobham’s Art of 5 and features Donald Harrison, Guy Barker, Julian Joseph, and Robert Hurst. I could tell from the line-up not to expect any Mahavishnu covers or “out there” fusion excursions, and what I got was what I expected: well-rendered post-bop with tasteful flourishes courtesy of Cobham. He really is a superb technician, and he follows soloists in ways I had yet to hear other drummers even attempt. He also seems to have incorporated the vocabulary of his “fusion” drumming into that of his “jazz” drumming, as evidenced by his fiery, unexpected press rolls and his rapid, quick-as-lightning kick drum hits.

The group really is a class act and acts as a fine summation of all things good about jazz. Seeing Cobham play with Mahavishnu would’ve been preferable, but seeing as I’d yet to be born when they were a group, the Art of 5 is fine with me. If and when they come to your town, you should check them out.

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