by Mark Griffith
Billy Cobham's supremely influential career cannot be easily encapsulated. He has influenced drums, drumming, and drummers, not to mention music in general. His influence has crossed all genres and is as strong today as ever. In the world of drumming, Billy Cobham raised the bar, and for that we all owe him a great deal of thanks.
Born May 16, 1944 in Panama, Billy attended Music and Art High School in New York City and was active in drum corps. His career began in New York after he got out of the Army. In the late 1960s, Cobham played with pianists Horace Silver and Billy Taylor. Both bandleaders were coming out of a strong hard-bop jazz approach, and at the time Billy's jazz playing was similar to that of Louis Hayes or Mickey Roker. Listen to Cobham's early recordings with Horace Silver on Serenade to a Soul Sister, with George Benson on Giblet Gravy, and with Milt Jackson on Sunflower. His later jazz playing would become highly interactive and loose, as is heard on his trio playing with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. This trio can be seen on the Hancock DVDs Hurricane and In Concert. More recently, check out two recent releases from Donald Harrison with Cobham and Carter, Heroes and New York Cool. However one perceives Billy's amazing drumming, it is firmly grounded in a small group interactive jazz approach.
After breaking onto the scene playing small group jazz, Cobham's career took a decided turn. Billy became one of the first drummers to combine the jazz and rock approaches. Tony Williams, Alphonse Mouzon, Lenny White, and Jack DeJohnette were also creating unique blends of jazz, rock, and funk, but Billy's audacious and over-the-top approach was unmatched and very different.
"The first time I saw Billy Cobham was in 1974," says Steve Smith, "and it changed my life! I had heard Mahavishnu's The Inner Mounting Flame, and I didn't understand it at the time since I had mainly been listening to big band music and rock. But in '74, when I was going to Berklee in Boston, I saw Billy with his first band at the jazz club Paul's Mall. He was playing super funky with a powerful approach I had never seen before. He'd play these huge fills around his clear Fibes kit, and sometimes he would be so into it that he would stand up when he played a fill. It was truly awesome. I went back to school the next day and tried to play like that, but I couldn't even get close. The teacher running the ensemble yelled at me and told me to calm down."
Billy was playing with the funk band Birdsong in New York, when he joined the jazz-rock band Dreams (whose two recordings sound like a more aggressive and looser Blood, Sweat & Tears). According to Dreams trumpet player Randy Brecker, it was when Billy was playing with Dreams that he was first heard by Miles Davis. That meeting led to Billy's inclusion on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, the first recording session where Billy began to fuse his jazz and rock approach. Billy played on the song "Corrado," although this track was not heard until the recent release of the complete Bitches Brew sessions. Everyone first heard Cobham with Miles in 1970 when Davis used Billy on the entire Jack Johnson recording.
Cobham brought a funkier approach to Miles' recordings. The groove on the Jack Johnson track "Right Off" is among the strongest and funkiest grooves Davis recorded during this period, and "Corrado" is one of the most unique parts of the Bitches Brew sessions. Billy also appeared on one track of Miles' album Live Evil.
While contributing to the Davis recordings, Cobham also made two recordings with Dreams, whose self-titled debut recording is an outstanding example of early jazz-rock.
Cobham soon left to join John Mc-Laughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971. It was on the Mahavishnu recordings The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire that Cobham firmly established his rightful place in drum history. Cobham and the rest of Mahavishnu took musical virtuosity to new levels, and Cobham's technical prowess and odd-time grooves laid the groundwork for the band's dense sound.
From The Inner Mounting Flame, listen to the relentless "Vital Transformation" (in 9/8) and "The Dance Of Maya" (a shuffle in 10/8). One overlooked aspect of Cobham's drumming that often comes to the forefront on the Mahavishnu recordings is his ability to play very intensely at a low volume. You can hear this on "You Know You Know" as well as on a great deal of the recently released Lost Trident Sessions. This is a very aggressive recording, but Cobham is often "burning high on a low flame" on the recording. To see a great example of this, watch Billy's solo on the Zildjian Day in New York video, where he brings much of his performance down to a whisper. Billy is more often remembered for his speed, strength, and sheer endurance behind the drums, but his musicality and his touch is often overlooked.
For an example of Cobham's classic "over the top" fusion drumming check out "One Word" (from Birds Of Fire). However, pay close attention to the dynamics of his single strokes on the amazing intro to the tune, as well as on the volcanic climax of the drum solo at the end. The long and very controlled crescendo on "Meeting Of The Spirits" is also worth close examination.
For two recordings featuring contemporary interpretations of the Mahavishnu music and Cobham's superhuman drumming, check out Vinnie Colaiuta on Visions Of An Inner Mounting Apocalypse and Gregg Bendian with The Mahavishnu Project. About his interpretations of Cobham's playing, Bendian says, "Billy Cobham is the father of odd-meter drumming. While it's now commonplace for tunes to move in and out of many different complex meters, Billy paved the way for this with his rhythmic contributions to tunes like 'Vital Transformation,' 'The Dance of Maya,' and my favorite, 'Trilogy,' which is in seven. Of course, it didn't hurt that he could make these somewhat arcane time signatures groove as effortlessly as a typical four-beat bar. I think it's safe to say that anyone dealing with complex, dense or aggressive drumming today owes a debt of gratitude to Billy Cobham--and that most definitely includes me! His inspiration and influence on myself, and all drummer/composer/bandleaders is profound and immeasurable."
Cobham also made an impact on the equipment we play. He plays a right-handed drumset with a ride cymbal mounted on his left, and a very low mounted hi-hat, playing both with his left hand. "Playing melodically, as well as rhythmically, is very important to me," Cobham told Modern Drummer in 1986. "Left-hand ride gave me the strength and independence to play patterns in any direction, so I could make a musical statement in any way."
While Chinese cymbals were used extensively during the Swing and Big Band eras, Billy popularized their use in "modern" drumming. But not only did Billy bring back a forgotten voice from the past, he changed the way it was mounted. Billy began mounting China cymbals "upside down," with the edge turned away from the drummer. Billy also was integral in the creation of the original Gong Bass Drums.
Cobham did not initially play a large kit with two bass drums (The Inner Mounting Flame and early live Mahavishnu gigs were done with a smaller, single bass drum kit), and he wasn't the first jazz drummer to play with two bass drums. But he pioneered the ultra-aggressive and virtuosic double bass drumming style. Pay close attention to the double bass drum groove in 9/8 on the song "Birds Of Fire" from the album of the same name, as well as on "Miles Beyond" and "Open Country Joy." Billy's double bass drum shuffle on the composition "Quadrant 4" (from his Spectrum album) is one of the most influential drum grooves ever recorded. It has borne many offspring, from Simon Phillips's "Space Boogie" shuffle to Alex Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" groove.
Cobham's flawless matched grip, machine-gun approach served notice to the rest of the drumming world that drumming would never be the same. It was also his thumbs-up matched grip that began to legitimize that specific approach to the drumset. "I found that French grip is an easier way to gain response from the head of a drum," Cobham told Modern Drummer in 1998. "I picked that up from watching great timpanists, like Vic Firth. It works particularly well on smaller, more tightly tuned drums in that it incorporates the smaller muscles of the fingers. I can play singles for longer periods of time with the French grip."
After Cobham departed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he established himself as a bandleader. His first recording as a leader, Spectrum, pioneered a new rock/jazz fusion sound that was followed by bandleaders such as Jeff Beck. It should be noted that Cobham composed all of the music on this classic, which included the fusion anthem "Stratus." Although his soloing has always been what people have focused on, Billy's grooves on this recording are essential, especially the super funky "Taurian Matador," "Stratus," and "Red Baron."
Many of Billy's other releases as a bandleader are outstanding. Check out Crosswinds, Total Eclipse, Glass Menagerie, Flight Time, and The Traveler. Like Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Cobham's bands exposed many musicians that would become stalwarts in the jazz and fusion genre. It was with Billy that John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Michael and Randy Brecker, Gil Goldstein, George Duke, Mike Stern and others received some of their first wide exposure.
For some great Cobham recordings as a sideman, check out Larry Coryell's influential all-star fusion recording Spaces and Coryell's recent Spaces Revisited, and Dean Brown's Here. In the '80s Billy played in Bob Weir's band, Bobby and the Midnites (there is a terrific self-titled video of this band). Billy can also be seen on the his own videos Drums By Design and Live Jazz Legends 1989, and on the videos Cobham Meets Bellson, and With Gil Evans and his Orchestra.
In the '90s Cobham helped start the band Jazz Is Dead, recording its Blue Light Rain album. Both Bobby and The Midnites and Jazz Is Dead also featured bassist Alphonso Johnson. Cobham has often recorded with Johnson, and their funky and slinky time concept creates a wonderful pad for great music to be created upon.
Cobham's drum sound is wide open, while his snare sound remains high pitched and bright. The solos "Anxiety" (from Spectrum) and "Funky Kind of Thing" (from the album A Funky Thide Of Sings) capture Cobham's drum sound perfectly. This sound was usually achieved with an oversized drumset and multiple toms, which Billy popularized. Steve Smith remembers, "After doing my first tour with Jean-Luc Ponty in 1976 using a small jazz kit, Jean-Luc asked me if I'd get a 'big, double bass drumset, like Billy Cobham's.' After the tour I bought my first Sonor kit with two 24" bass drums!"
Although Cobham uses larger drumsets with two bass drums and multiple toms, his cymbal setup has always remained relatively small, relying on larger crashes and brighter rides, while occasionally using a rack of special effects cymbals mounted behind him.
In 2001 Cobham was named one of the 25 Most Influential Drummers by Modern Drummer magazine. Although there are many all-time greats, Billy Cobham is one of the very few who can truly be called a pivotal drummer in music history. He changed the way we set up our drums and cymbals, he changed the way we play them, and he changed the way we play music.