A Q&A with Billy Cobham
By Geoff Gehman
Billy Cobham’s first solo record, “Spectrum,” has been a mother-and-father ship for jazz-rock-funk fusioneers for most of its 40 years in outer and inner space. Everyone from Jeff Beck to Chick Corea has been bowled over by the ferocious, ferociously creative grooves played by Cobham, the drumming composer, with a first-rate band starring guitarist Tommy Bolin and keyboardist Jan Hammer. The album has captivated younger musicians like Massive Attack, the English triphoppers who sampled Cobham’s “Stratus” in their massively catchy 1991 tune “Safe from Harm.”
“Spectrum” is a touchstone/cornerstone of Cobham’s career as a global, astral musician. Over five decades he’s shared sonic adventures with George Duke and Peter Gabriel, ensembles from India and Cuba, a jazz group that improvises Grateful Dead numbers and a UNICEF-sponsored group of autistic kids. Drumming with wide-open latitudes and attitudes, he’s spread the gospel that percussionists should be much, much more than rhythm machines.
On Jan. 18 Cobham will celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Spectrum” during his third gig at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, a Pennsylvania version of villages in his adopted homeland of Switzerland. He’ll play “Stratus,” “Red Baron” and the rarely played “Quadrant 4” with a rare quartet featuring fellow drummer-composer-band leader Gary Husband on keyboards and electric violinist Jerry Goodman, Cobham’s comrade in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, another revolutionary bunch of fusioneers. The Spectrum 40 band will also perform progressive non-Cobham tunes with funky titles like “Brick Chicken” and “If the Animals Had Guns Too.”
Cobham sounded progressively funky during a recent Skype interview from a hotel in Panama, where he was born 68 years ago and began soaking up Caribbean rhythmic rays. For over an hour he roamed all over the spectrum of music as life and life as music.
Q: You’ve said that you recorded “Spectrum” as a “calling card” for your life after the Mahavishnu Orchestra, before guitarist-leader John McLaughlin replaced you with Narada Michael Walden. What other goals did you have for the album?
A: Well, I wanted to work locally, in New York, with gifted, like-minded musicians. At the time I was trying to figure out who I should be working with. I was aware that changes would be made in the Orchestra. Then, all of a sudden, Michael Walden is sitting behind me. At the time I was thinking: “Well, this is interesting; I guess he’s part of John’s entourage.” That’s what made me aware that I was going to be one of the changes.
John had tremendous ideas. Of course, I wanted to be like him, but I had no idea how. I knew I needed to slow things down. The Orchestra had played a phenomenal number of concerts over two and a half years. That was great because it made me much more recognizable; it put my face out there for many, many people. But John had me playing what seemed to be a million notes per bar. At times I was playing so fast, I thought I was in a race.
So I decided that I would play something like 10 notes per bar instead of a million. I put down my little ideas, as basic as they were. It was like learning to type on a manual typewriter with two fingers.
My morsels turned out to be quite palatable. You could even say they were popular. “Spectrum” pleased a lot of people, even though it never won a Grammy or sold a million copies. But that’s a political thing. I’m sure it will have staying power long after those guys [i.e., the skeptics] are long gone.
Q: In 2011 you reunited with Jerry Goodman, your old Mahavishnu colleague, to play Mahavishnu tunes with the HR Big Band during a Berlin jazz festival. What did the gig teach you about your original hitch in the Orchestra?
A: Jerry and I didn’t play a whole lot with each other in the Orchestra. He stood to my right on the stage, in a corner by his amplifier. Both of us were in back, and John was up front. We were John’s backup band to a certain degree. I remember there was a lot of playing onstage but not a lot of camaraderie offstage.
As you age you just mellow out and become more logical. [By 2011] I was ready to get back with Jerry to play the music of John McLaughlin. Playing with the HR Big Band made me realize what a major contribution all of us made in the Orchestra—John and Jerry and Jan [Hammer] and [bassist] Rick [Laird] and me. I learned to think more about the value of musical relationships and less about personal relationships.
The best thing is that I decided to go out on a limb. [In 2008] I played Mahavishnu tunes with the Adelaide [Symphony] Orchestra, with 60 string players playing John’s guitar parts. It was a great experience; it confirmed that music is a universal language. It will not lie to the listener. It will tell the truth about the personality of the performer, from the singer to the drummer.
Playing with Jerry went over pretty well. But it felt like just a beginning. I was thinking: Maybe one day I’ll tap him on the shoulder and ask him to play with me again. Before I decided to do that, he called me. That call started a germ of an idea that became the Spectrum 40 Band. It’s rare that anyone from the MVO [Mahavishnu Orchestra] would be working with me all these years later. It’s also pretty nice.
Q: Louis Bellson is one of your role models as a drumming band leader. What did he teach you other than using multiple bass drums to deepen and diversify sound?
A: Louis gave me a lot of challenges. People always ask me: Who are the drummers who make you feel really feel good? And I tell them: Zero. Because I don’t listen to the drummer, I listen to the band. I got that attitude from Louis Bellson.
Another thing that he drummed into me is that a drummer has to be an all-around musician. Many people, including drummers, think drummers are not musicians. They think drummers are timekeepers and synchronists whose job is to keep the band playing together. There are drummers who are of my musical community, musicians who are creative band leaders: Gary Husband; Harvey Mason; Roy Haynes; Buddy Rich. And, of course, Louis Bellson.
Louis left me with the idea that you should try to reach your horizon, even though you can never reach it. By reaching for your horizon, you will always be creative, you will always be learning.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade and what did you learn not to repeat?
A: About 20 years ago an entrepreneur in Germany offered what was for me a crazy payday. He hired me to play with two musicians. One of them I knew I’d love to work with; the other one I thought I’d love to work with. But when I started playing with the other one, I was shocked by the way he had changed his style of playing. We just did not match up.
It was one of the few times in my life when I thought I was working. When it’s a job, it’s an awful, awful feeling. I can only think of it as prostitution–only not liking it..
Q: On a nicer note, how about a favorite story about working with autistic kids?
A: I was in Wales with Asere, the Cuban ensemble. We were working with kids around the age of four who are very sensitive to sound. All you can do with them is play something repetitive, something they can repeat, something that gives them confidence. Then they get comfortable because they know it’s something that won’t change.
There was this one girl about three years old who was having trouble. She was very, very vocal about being very, very unhappy. I decided to hit my cymbal with a mallet to make a sound that was softer and more sustained, more non-aggressive. As long as she hit that cymbal that way, she was very much in control of her emotions. She was happy; she was humming.
Q: Have you had a recent epiphany about being a drummer or a band leader, an answer to a question that was basically unanswerable for many moons?
A: I don’t know if I’d call it an epiphany, but it’s become clearer to me that I have to tell young drummers not to emulate famous drummers for the wrong reasons. I hear them say: “Man, I want to be like Buddy [Rich], or Max [Roach], or Elvin [Jones] because they look so good!” You know, it’s “Oh, I love his red-sparkle drums; they’re so cool!”
I had this one student who came with a drum kit that must have cost $45,000. He even had a butler who wiped it down with white gloves. And then he began playing and it was clear he didn’t know what he was doing. On the other hand, I had this other student who played a drum he had built. And he played with tender loving care.
The point I try to make is that drumming is never about looking good. It’s about absorbing and understanding and communicating. It’s about playing together—rhythmically, melodically, harmonically, harmoniously. And who cares if a drum is made of maple or ash or cocobolo?
Q: You envisioned settling down in your 50s, perhaps as a tenured teacher. Can you envision settling down in a similar way in your 70s?
A: I don’t think I could. I’ve got too much I want to do, and too much I like to do, as a musician. One of the reasons I like this tour is that we’re playing music I didn’t write, music I can learn from; I learned so much in the Orchestra from playing tunes by Jan [Hammer] and Rick [Laird]. There’s [guitarist] Dean [Brown’s] “The Battle’s Over [For Jaco],” which he dedicated to Jaco Pastorius [the gifted, tragic jazz bassist]. And Gary [Husband’s] “If the Animals Had Guns Too.” And Jerry’s “Brick Chicken,” which is a real treat because people don’t get to hear his tunes played live that often.
Then there’s “Quadrant 4” from “Spectrum,” which we don’t play live very often. It’s taken on some very interesting proportions [laughs]. It’s one of the pieces that might have been played by Mahavishnu, even though I can’t remember the Orchestra playing an uptempo shuffle. It’s pretty heavy, man. It’s not for the faint of heart.
We’re also playing my ballad “Heather,” which I have not played in years. It’s from the “Crosswinds” album ; I remember [saxophonist] Michael Brecker played a great solo on it. I wrote it during my first trip to Japan, when I was with the Orchestra, after I visited a museum in Hiroshima devoted to the impact of the atomic bomb.
I found out that somebody in Japan decided to use “Heather” in a video of the  Japanese tsunami. You can hear it, and see it, on YouTube. I have no idea if the guy knows that I wrote “Heather” after visiting the atomic museum in Hiroshima. Still, it’s pretty intense; it’s pretty mind blowing.
Q: That leads me to ask if you could take other influential albums of yours—say, “Crosswinds” or “Total Eclipse” –and give them the 40th-anniversary tour treatment, too. You know, I think the world needs to hear Billy Cobham play piano again on “The Moon Ain’t Made of Green Cheese” [a track from “Total Eclipse”].
A: [laughs] Yeah, it could happen. Absolutely.
Billy Cobham: The Scoop
(1) First tune he couldn’t forget: John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” recorded by the saxophonist with such killer players as pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. “It knocked me down, man,” says Cobham. “It was very scary for a teenager. It made me think: Music can really be like this?”
(2) In the late 1960s he helped christen the Electronic Drum Controller.
(3) In 1984 he recorded an album with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, reuniting with the group 11 years after being fired by guitarist-leader John McLaughlin. In 2010 he and McLaughlin played live together for the first time in 27 years.
(4) He’s the star of the 2007 documentary “Sonic Mirror.”
(5) His tips for young drummers include paying close attention to comfortable posture and coloring repetitive patterns with subtle, scintillating dynamics. Some drummers believe repetition is imprisoning; Cobham believes it’s liberating because it eases improvisation.
(6) He’s recording a multi-disc tribute to his late vocalist mother and his late pianist father that doubles as “an audio history of points in my musical life.” Scheduled to be released this year is “Compass Point,” a CD of a 15-year-old concert in the Bahamas previously unreleased because of an untuned piano. Organized by Bob Marley’s manager, the gig was played on a plywood stage over a hotel swimming pool.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He thinks that Billy Cobham is a rare combination of samurai warrior and Zen master. He can be reached at email@example.com.