Billy Cobham: "Thinking Out Loud"

Billy Cobham

MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA's music came to us a little later than theirs. Then, at the crossroads of hard rock and disco, a new style broke into the palette of Moscow musical life, surpassing in energy everything up to that moment familiar to us, young advanced snobs. Without really realizing where this crazy music came from, we perceived it as something born this very second by the brain of a genius in a powerful burst of inspiration. My generation, raised on rock, was unaware that this music was one of the many offshoots from the mainstream of the "fusion" style nurtured by Miles Davis in the late sixties.

Naturally, among many, the direction created by the British blues guitarist John McLaughlin was closer to the majority than the style of the Negro jazzman Herbie Hancock. Only a lazy drummer didn't talk at the time about how Billy Cobham plays his fast tom-tom brunches - singles or deuces. In each vocal-instrumental ensemble, the drummer tried to insert Cobham's famous "skip" - a repeating figure of two thirty-seconds and two sixteenths, coming to the last sixteenth instead of the first beat of the next. It sounded extremely fresh. The dizzying technique required to play such music raised a pretty serious barrier to cloning. Nevertheless, the RIKI-TIKI-TAVI group appeared in Moscow, headed by Alexei Utkin. The oboist, now the soloist of the MOSCOW VIRTUOSIS, Lesha was on the you with the guitar and very famously cracked down on the music of John McLaughlin, which would have been impossible without a serious academic education. Alexey Gagarin, one of the most popular drummers of those times, played the role of Billy Cobham. In addition to "RIKA", in Moscow there was also a SECOND WIND team with Gennady Khashchenko on drums. He was one of the iconic figures in the musical scene of the seventies. The inventor of his own technical concept of drumming, called "System", Khashchenko categorically stated that this is how Cobham plays. He just claimed that Cobham plays with deuces, mercilessly branding with shame and bad words supporters of single blows. In fairness, we note that the "System" itself was a very interesting and promising creation, which, unfortunately, did not receive proper development and practical application. There were many people in Moscow who wanted to play this kind of music, but, I repeat once again, its complexity was a stumbling block for a huge number of musicians. The fact that John McLaughlin collaborated with Indian musicians (Shakti) and the Indian pseudonym gave a certain mystical flavor to all his work.

Thanks to a dubious attitude towards everything trendy, as well as an innate sense of an opponent, the universal Cobham-Mahavishnu frenzy had a minimal effect on the formation of my tastes in the seventies. Extreme manifestations of human emotions did not find a response in the hidden corners of my soul. I was consumed by jazz aesthetics. From fusion music, I was much more interested in the sophisticated WEATHER REPORT and Chick Corea. The dead-end discussions about Billy Cobham, which I had to witness on several occasions, caused me nothing but irritation. But as a drummer, I couldn't help but try some of his tricks, even though my whole being was against it. I found his game rough, devoid of subtlety, sophistication, but, on the other hand, I could not help but admire his technical capabilities.

Such an ambivalent attitude towards this certainly outstanding musician has haunted me all my life. In the early eighties, Billy moved to Europe and practically disappeared from my sight. A 1984 Zildjian Day video, a concert with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter from the same period, a recording made from our television in the early 90s - that's all that reminded me of Cobham in these years. However, in 1988 in Boston, I bought a Cobham meets Bellson video from Tower Records. I watched this drum show with interest, where two famous performers play with an orchestra and compete with each other in a very benevolent, gentlemanly way.

My acquaintance with Billy Cobham and his performances in Moscow changed my attitude towards him in many ways. I was sure that I would be delighted with the concert, knowing that live music can break all prejudices. In addition, the instrumental health of my colleagues has always had a beneficial effect on me, and I never had any doubts about the technical perfection of Cobham. But the biggest surprise was the personality of this musician. Philosophical mindset, wisdom, balance, complete adequacy in the perception of the outside world - such is the appearance of this extraordinary person. The most banal questions I asked caused a lot of thoughts that led Billy further and further away from the essence of the problem, so that he had to direct the "stream of consciousness" in the right direction. Cobham himself came up with a topic that, I think, concerns all professional musicians - the problem of the coexistence of a musical career and family life. It took Billy almost a lifetime to figure out how to be both a touring musician and a good husband and father. There were periods in his life when he was away from home 300 out of 365 days a year.

You live, as it were, with two mothers - music and family. You feel that both need you, and you yourself love both. But you are bound by obligations with record companies, promoters, colleagues. You can't undo everything. Therefore, the family always suffers. I was married four times, and all four times the marriage broke up for the same reason - my absence from the family. Only now I understand how these two "mothers" can exist together. After all, your child must learn everything from his father, nothing can replace a personal example. But, nevertheless, if I were offered to return everything back, I would not agree to change my life, because then such a successful career would not have turned out, and this is the most important thing for me. My efforts to get a recipe for happiness - to find out what exactly needs to be done in order to achieve harmony in life - were not crowned with success. Mr. Cobham indulged in abstract reasoning again and again.

I also found this way of talking in earlier interviews with Billy. Asked about his relationship with John McLaughlin in 1975, Billy replied to Down Beat magazine: Many publications in their articles try to give the impression that I cant stand this guy. But this is not necessarily the case." (!!!) A similar duality can be seen in the answer given to me to the question about his equal use of both hands. After all, Mr. Cobham on the drums with his feet is right-handed, and with his hands he is left-handed. In a word, ambidextrous. I am an ordinary right-hander. Its just that at the very beginning of my career, sitting down at the drums, I found that its much more convenient to play the hi-hat and the lead cymbal with the left hand, and everything else with the right. This makes it possible to avoid the inconvenience associated with crossing the arms.

When set up like this, my game seems to be directed outward, and not inward, which expands the space. I am very glad that I came to this from the very beginning. After all, relearning is always more difficult than starting from scratch. Agree, it sounds very logical and convincing. And how much courage, ingenuity, wisdom, finally. Which of us at a tender age could come to such an extraordinary decision? Who among us could go against all the rules? But here is what the same Billy Cobham said in an interview with the same Down Beat magazine in 1974, answering a question about setting up his numerous toms and timpani by scale steps: Yes, I have all the sounds from A to Z. They are located in the opposite order to the pianoforte - I have the timpani on the right. But, actually, I'm ambidexter and I can play them from any side. The famous musician is simply woven from contradictions!

Mr. Cobham has already toured in Latvia and Georgia. He also had to receive offers from the USSR. The first came during perestroika, and it was only about one concert, and the second, in the early nineties, was rejected due to being very busy. Having no idea where he was going, Billy did not take his camera and camcorder with him, believing that he might lose these devices in the wild country. Very young for his fifty-six, Cobham immediately after arriving at Sheremetyevo, in early December 2000, asked if there was squash in Moscow. This proved to be a problem for tour organizers.

My conversations with Billy began on the way from Sheremetyevo to Moscow. Sitting in the car, Mr. Cobham admired the breadth of Moscow streets and, seeing the church, asked if this was St. Basil's Cathedral? I told him about the videos with his participation that I have at home, and Billy told me that the concert with Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock, the show with Louis Bellson were part of one big project. Its essence is that, having enlisted the support of one Swiss businessman, Billy decided to invite all his favorite musicians to Switzerland and hold a series of concerts. Unfortunately, this project was a fiasco, faced with enormous financial difficulties. It got to the point that the producer was prosecuted and forced to leave for Spain for several years, taking advantage of the absence of an extradition agreement between Switzerland and Spain. But, nevertheless, part of the filmed material was published. Moreover, this happened without the knowledge of Cobham himself and his management. So Billy was quite surprised when fans in Australia and Argentina told him about the videos of the concerts of this Swiss project. They also exist in Russia. This was not the first failure in Cobham's career. In the mid-seventies, Billy was forced to disband his band for the same reasons. Despite the success of the landmark records "Spectrum" and "Crosswinds", the band's tour ended in commercial failure. Then Billy went to live in California and for some time brought himself into the right physical shape, rightly believing that this is what determines moral health. He climbed trees, chopped wood and thought a lot. As a result, Cobham changed management and his next project with George Duke was more successful.

The entire career of Billy Cobham testifies to the uncompromising and initiative of this musician. He never waited for offers from his colleagues. He boldly left ensembles and created something of his own. Even in the heyday of his popularity, Billy did not rest on his laurels, but abruptly changed everything and moved forward. But let's not idealize. Quite mercantile interests were often the reason for cardinal changes, for example, it was they who made Billy once refuse to tour with Miles Davis himself. It is known that Cobham took part in the recording of six Miles records on the recommendation of Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. Billy didn't even know which albums he was recording. Miles' manager called him and said that Davis wanted him to be on the record at that time, without even asking if he was free at that time. It goes without saying that there can be no refusal. Billy recalls what struck him in these sessions was the number of stars. They were all there at once - Hancock, Shorter, Zawinul, Jarrett, McLaughlin, Williams, Corea, etc. Miles had problems with his throat and spoke in a very low, husky voice. But the musicians always heard his laconic remarks, greedily caught them. All this happened in the late sixties. During this time, Cobham worked mainly as a studio, session musician. He could not even list everyone with whom he had to record in those years. Among the many was George Benson. To my question about how he worked with Benson, Billy gave an exhaustive answer: I dont know. I just came, recorded my part and left.

Despite the fact that Cobham took part in the creation of the fusion style, recording with Davis on the landmark records "Bitches Brew", "On the corner", "Big Fun", "Jack Johnson" and others, his interests in At that time, they embraced completely different spaces. He wanted to play jazz music in the style of Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott. The tastes instilled in Billy in childhood by his father made themselves felt. The desire to express oneself through "straight" jazz remained for life, without becoming, however, the musician's forte. And now Cobham plays jazz in his quartet, and sometimes quintet with pianist Mulgrew Miller.

Billy Cobham's father, a mathematician and amateur pianist, moved with his family from his native Panama to New York in 1947 in search of a better life. So little Billy came to America at the age of 3. He does not classify his father as a jazz pianist, but jazz has always sounded in the house, especially big bands. So Basie and Duke became Cobham's lifelong idols. One of the first drum heroes for little Billy was Sonny Payne, a drummer from the Count Basie Orchestra.

But life had its own way. In 1969, after leaving the Horace Silver Ensemble, Billy Cobham received an offer from trombonist Barry Rogers to become a member of the DREAMS group. Billy's partners in this fusion ensemble were the Brecker brothers. On the one hand, this was not exactly what Cobham was striving for, but on the other hand, he was tired of constant studio work in New York. He was drawn to change. So he accepted the offer. It was in this group that Billy got a chance to use his entire technical arsenal. According to Randy Brecker, Cobham became the central figure of the ensemble. Everything revolved around him. Absolutely the same impression occurred to me (and not only me) during a concert at Le Club in Moscow. Billy, like a magnet, attracted the eyes of the audience to him. This does not at all detract from the merits of his partners in creating the sound palette of the ensemble. It's just that there is some kind of magic drum action. Virtuosity, beauty of movement, bewitching rhythm - all this riveted the attention of the public to a wonderful performer. I was struck by the colossal possession of dynamics. Billy easily moved from dizzying and deafening passages to barely audible episodes with the most delicate touch. This is incredibly difficult purely technologically: the instantaneous inclusion of completely different muscle groups in the process. Billy lifted the curtain on the magic of this effect. In addition to unconditional technical mastery, he, like a good grandmaster, sees many moves ahead - he clearly imagines the coming change of nuance. Clarity of thought predetermines the clarity of presentation, how the computer controls the machine, its brain gives orders to the motor apparatus accurately and in time. The impeccable mastery of the rudimentary technique of playing the snare drum, which was the result of studying at the New York's High School of Music and Art, many years of study and service in the army band, allowed Cobham to become one of the first drummers (together with Tony Williams) of new music, which established unprecedented until then, emotional and technical performance standards.

The music of the DREAMS ensemble was improvisational in the highest degree, as, indeed, were all other initial experiments of the musicians of this direction (WEATHER REPORT, Herbie Hancock's HEADHUNTERS). Jazz improvisation was simply "mounted" on fashionable rock rhythms. It didn't always happen organically. A new compositional-melodic concept has not yet been formed. It was a happy time of creative exploration. Despite the presence of a brass band, not a single arrangement was written in DREAMS. Everything happened spontaneously. This state of affairs did not suit our hero. He wanted a clearer musical concept, a more structurally defined idea. And Billy Cobham leaves the band. He accepts John McLaughlin's offer to become a member of the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA.

It was in this ensemble that, according to most critics, Cobham's best recordings were made. Billy's fantastic expression matches perfectly with McLaughlin's pressure. Cobham finally finds a true leader in John. By this time, a set of drums is being formed, on which Billy will play for the next years. His rig includes 14 drums! These are two volumes of volume 8 × 12, 9 × 13, two 16, 18, and also two barrels 14 × 24. Nobody used such barrels before Billy. Cobham became a trendsetter in drum packaging, and Frank Ippolito, at the time owner of the Professional Percussion Center in New York, began to have difficulty getting 14×24 bass drums. Another instrument that no one before Cobham had used, became the so-called gong drum (Hinger Touch-Tone drum). It is also a bass drum, half as deep, adapted for playing with sticks. It is equipped with one timpani head and suspended on a frame. Billy used two of these drums. Now a few words about Hinger Touch-Tone. Cobham, until 1977, basically did not deal with large drum firms. He received a lot of offers, but always refused, believing that no one was able to make the tools he needed and not wanting to sell himself cheaply. Therefore, Billy collaborated with a very small and very expensive company, Hinger Touch-Tone. The founder and owner of the company, Dan Hinger, a classical drummer, member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, teacher at the Juilliard and Manhattan schools, approached the production of drums with exceptional thoroughness. According to Cobham himself, Al Duffy, the master who directly made drums for him, created unique instruments strictly in accordance with the requirements of the customer. He covered the drums with polyurethane, because he believed that wood absorbs sound, and polyurethane reflects it many times. Such a concept, denying the acoustic properties of natural materials, did not last long. But in the seventies it reached its peak. Then Billy Cobham switched to transparent plastic drums. Today, when everything is back to normal, and natural wood has regained its position in the production of drums, such a set looks at least frivolous, but in those days it was all the rage. Transparent handicraft installations also appeared in Moscow. Mr. Cobham himself delved into all the details of the production process. He even made "rationalization proposals": according to his order, the snare drum mute, made of vulcanized rubber, was placed exactly in the middle of the plastic. And now, in a conversation with me, Billy several times emphasized the importance of knowing the structure of the instrument you play. In his opinion, a musician cannot comprehend the secrets of sound if he does not know how it is produced. This includes familiarity with the materials from which the instrument is made, and the process of sound formation, and manufacturing technology. Billy Cobham also brought back the Zildjian Swish Knocker cymbal used by Zutty Singleton. This cymbal with outward-curving edges and studs became the prototype for the China Boy. Billy used it exactly as traditional Chinese, without staves. Cobham's characteristic technique is to support the soloist's climax with this cymbal sounding on "and" (after each beat).

Contrary to popular belief, Billy Cobham was not the first double-drum performer. He considers himself a follower of Louis Bellson, his senior colleague and great friend. And today, Cobham and Bellson perform a lot together, tirelessly promoting the art of drumming. In Moscow, Billy played with one big drum. For thirty years, his installation has not changed much. But the size of the stage at Le Club did not allow him to put on a complete set, but the audience could watch Cobham's famous hits from above and below the crash cymbal. The cymbal is suspended strictly parallel to the floor, and this kind of rapid alternation of blows from above and below makes it vibrate in several planes at once, creating the effect of a changing phase.

In parallel with his work in MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA, Cobham is starting to implement his own projects. The lack of commercial success does not discourage Billy. He draws certain conclusions. His outlook seems to be undergoing a major change. In conversations with me, he spoke about the importance of direct targeting of any music. Completely devoid of jazz snobbery, Cobham called Michael Jackson and Madonna outstanding performers, capable of holding an audience of millions with their music. Billy was greatly impressed by his acquaintance with Jerry Garcia from GRATEFUL DEAD. The personality of this musician was so powerful that for many years the team gathered thousands of people at their concerts almost every day. Billy said that he would like to achieve this.

In the mid-seventies, again at the initiative of Cobham, GEORGE DUKE - BILLY COBAM BAND was created. The young guitarist John Scofield made his debut in this ensemble, who later became one of the key figures of modern jazz. The presence of his own concept and original music will continue to lead Billy on his way. Since the early 1980s, which coincided with his move to Europe, Cobham has mainly played in his own ensembles, occasionally accepting invitations from colleagues. For example, in the early nineties, he participates in Larry Coryell's ELEVENTH HOUSE project and, not finding a common language with the leader, leaves the group. Cobham feels more comfortable in a situation where there is one owner - himself.

I was very surprised when I learned that Mr. Cobham offered his services to YAMAHA himself. Usually the drum companies themselves hunt for musicians of this caliber in order to attract them to cooperation for advertising purposes. But after problems with MAPEX, Billy suddenly found himself in a "suspended" state and began to independently look for a company interested in him. Fortunately, it didn't take long, and YAMAHA gladly signed him. When asked about the advantages of this company's products over others and, in general, about his preferences in the field of drum sound and design, Billy expressed several interesting thoughts and original ideas. In his opinion, all manufacturers of professional instruments are quite consistent with his requirements (compare with his approach to the same issue of the sample of the seventies), but, unfortunately, the instruments do not play by themselves. In other words, the sound of the instruments depends entirely on the performer. Well, it's hard to disagree with that! Surely, for many, the name Billy Cobham is associated with TAMA, as he has been its hallmark for many years. All the more surprising for me was the fact that TAMA terminated the contract with Cobham in the eighties due to a change in the company's advertising policy!

The interests of Cobham as a musician involve him in areas adjacent to jazz. In the nineties, he made a number of trips to Brazil, where he seriously studied the rich musical heritage of this country. Classical music is also included in the spectrum of his passions. He repeatedly performs with symphony orchestras, playing the usual orchestral parts of the snare drum. Among his achievements is the famous "Bolero" by Ravel. Cobham attracts European performers to participate in his projects. He does not look for qualities inherent in American musicians in them. He is interested in exactly what representatives of other cultures can bring to music. Back in the seventies, the Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev played in his ensemble. The group HIGHER GROUND, with which Billy performed in Moscow, is played by musicians from Denmark, Germany, and France. And, of course, we talked about drumming techniques. At the concert, Billy, playing closing fill, performed deuces on the snare drum in an asymmetrical setting. It was powerful, beautiful, with a huge amplitude. But what was my surprise when he immediately played the same deuces, mirroring the position of his hands! It was impressive. Then he easily showed me the game in all possible versions on a napkin that ended up on the table. He impeccably performed all the drum rudiments (the main of which are: singles, deuces and triplets), using all possible playing techniques. Here is the hand technique, and the finger technique, and the elbow technique, and all together. Billy said that he was always busy, but only mentally. As for the physical sensations, the form is maintained through constant concerts. The position of the famous drummer's feet is also diverse. As needed, the necessary muscles and parts of the performing apparatus are switched on. The whole arsenal of means is used. But the basis of everything, according to Billy, is playing with the foot on the pedal. This develops the muscles and is the most difficult part of kicking. Cobham believes that the music itself dictates which technology should be used. Naturalness is the guide to action. His music in the most complex sizes is also not a super-technological invention, but a natural result of the creative process. I asked Billy a question about the development of limb independence and received an exhaustive answer that struck me with typical American self-confidence, claiming to be a panacea. Cobham cheerfully said, O.K. Now I will show you something. Take the sticks." I obediently followed the master's instructions. Next, Billy suggested that I play an exercise that I invented for myself a long time ago and sometimes used as a warm-up.

I played all this without much difficulty and looked in disbelief at Cobham, who was proudly looking at me.

Is that all? I asked.

"That's it, dude! Everything is here! You play with a barrel. You play with a hi-hat. You play the snare drum. You have a polyrhythm that runs through it all. What else is needed? It has everything! Everything you need!

I had no choice but to shrug my shoulders and say "OK".

"OK?" Billy answered and laughed happily.

Of course, I expected more serious and detailed recommendations, but I had to be content with little. Later, I repeatedly recalled with laughter the heartfelt peremptory nature of this advice. All five concerts at Le Club, organized by Igor Butman, were sold out. Everyone came: old fans from the seventies, a new generation of musicians and music lovers. I think: no one remained indifferent. The varied program included a fairly wide range of compositions ranging from rap to lyrical and contemplative fusion pieces. And Billy Cobham reigned over it all. He furiously hammered the second and fourth beats in rap into the snare drum, skillfully created rarefied space in lyrical episodes, and inventively and powerfully soloed.

During a press conference, one of the journalists asked Mr. Cobham if his style has changed over more than thirty years of professional activity. Billy said no, but he is only now beginning to understand that he is playing. Truly, a creative person is not a hindrance neither age nor everyday circumstances. So fans of Billy Cobham's talent will have new happy meetings with his music.

Material prepared by: Evgeny RIABOY