A Q&A with Billy Cobham
By Geoff Gehman
Billy Cobham loves taking his compositions to new places and spaces. For over 40 years the band-leading drummer has been exploring and expanding his pieces with different arrangements played by different partners, sometimes with different instruments. Whether performing with two or 22 musicians, he aims for everyone to work together harmoniously, a goal drummed into him when he was a Brooklyn teen in the St. Catherine’s Queensmen, a drum and bugle corps from Queens.
Cobham’s latest adventure is the Crosswinds Project, which performs a revision of his 1974 album “Crosswinds,” a typically eclectic set of settings from a pioneering fusioneer of jazz, rock, funk and world. Tracks range from “Spanish Moss: A Portrait in Sound,” a 17-minute suite both serene and stormy, to the deeply meditative, almost ambient “Heather,” inspired by Cobham’s visit to a Hiroshima museum devoted to the impact of the atomic bomb that demolished the city and helped end World War II..
On April 5 Cobham and four comrades will play “Crosswinds” at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where in 2013 he played all of “Spectrum,” his other 1974 LP, with another quartet. This time he’ll be joined by bassist Tim Landers, a former member of Cobham’s Glass Menagerie and a trio with ex-King Crimson drummer Ian Wallace; keyboardist Scott Tibbs, an alumnus of drummer Omar Hakim’s group who orchestrated numbers for Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce; Fareed Haque, who toured with Sting and earned a Guitar Magazine salute as top global guitarist, and bassoonist Paul Hanson, a Cirque du Soleil veteran who saxed up Eddie Money’s hit “Take Me Home Tonight.” They’ll supplement “Crosswinds” tunes with such Cobham staples as “Red Baron” and such Cobham rarities as “Taurian Matador,” written by a Taurus celebrated for his power, precision and vision.
Below, during a conversation from a Buffalo hotel, Cobham discusses his mission to match the right music with the right players and listeners; his big-band project with trumpeter/arranger Guy Barker; a new book of conversations that took place during a six-night run with Barker’s group, and his four-CD tribute to his Panamanian parents, who made and sold congas and steel drums for religious purposes.
Q: You’re revisiting “Crosswinds” because you want to make it sound better and make a bigger impact, to really, truly “produce the goods” after 40-plus years. What tune from the album has undergone the heaviest sea change?
A: “Spanish Moss.” When we first cut it there were only three stages. There was the melody, which is a kind of a salute to my Mahavishnu [Orchestra] days [in the 1970s]. After that we went into “Savannah the Serene,” which is a ballad that featured a trombone solo. After that we came around and played an uptempo piece. That concept is gone now; now there are four stages. “Savannah the Serene” is the introduction [instead of “Spanish Moss”], which is played this time with a guitar in the beginning. After that we move into the main theme. Then there’s a lot of orchestration—the piece is also designed for full orchestra and we perform a compressed, condensed version of that orchestration. There’s even a drum solo. It’s all more comprehensive, more challenging. It means we have to work together harder to play certain parts even more specifically. “Spanish Moss” is not just a bunch of songs; there’s a lot of interaction, a lot of careful, intricate back and forth.
Q: Last year you were inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame with the Distinguished Professional Achievement Award, a nod to a pivotal period in your musical development in the St. Catherine’s Queensmen. What lessons did your drum corps leaders drum into you?
A: Discipline, absolutely. Learning how to work with my colleagues, playing properly and focusing on achieving a certain goal in the eyes of the general public. I was able to see that an award is a reward for hard work by watching [renowned ensembles] like the Brooklyn Caballeros and the Golden Knights. Those were the days when there weren’t a lot of drums in drum corps. It’s very different today; now you’ll have 32 people playing just marimbas. What helped make us work together better is we could hear each other better; that made us play much more closely.
Bobby Thompson [a fellow member of the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame] was a great teacher. He was very direct, very organized, very, very inventive. He never had to yell at anyone; he just had to show what he wanted. Part of the learning experience was that we had to compete not just with other groups but among ourselves; we were like a big basketball team. So, in essence, in the end, it wasn’t about who’s better than whom, and who intimidated better than whom. There were people in other corps who were really great playing by themselves. We weren’t as good as these individuals but we were good enough to solidly represent the corps as a unit and play as one.
Ken Lindley worked with us on what was called in the United States at the time “ancient” drumming. We played marches played during the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, back in the days of George Washington. Even to this day the Marine Corps band has a specialized unit that plays “ancient” marches. It’s very beautiful to watch. It’s a form of drumming originated by Swiss military musicians. They were very poor, living on the borders of France and England, and they were essentially selling their skills to the highest bidder.
You see, the thing that is important is if you want to play music well, you must have a history with music. You must understand where it’s coming from, the how and the why. Otherwise, you’re just playing what the book says; you’re just playing notes.
Q: The Crosswinds Project reunites you with bassist Tim Landers, who in the early 1980s recorded four albums with your Glass Menagerie band, including a live LP from the Montreux Jazz Festival. Why is he back in your wheelhouse?
A: I lost track of Tim around 1984, after he got engaged and moved to California and became an A-list studio player. He found a very comfortable place in the industry; you’re working all the time and you’re making money. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be challenged very much because the material is for commercial use primarily, for movies and such. He just disappeared on me. Around 1986 I was ensconced in Switzerland and I didn’t get to California very often and when I did, it was just a flash in the pan situation. I was not playing in the United States at that point much at all. In 2013 or 2014 I was playing with Jerry Goodman [electric violinist and fellow alumnus of the Mahavishnu Orchestra] at a small club in Los Angeles and the next thing I know this guy walks in and says: “How are you doing? I’m Tim Landers.” And I’m looking at him like, huh? Because I hadn’t seen him in so long. Eventually, I recognize him and say, hey, how have you been? It turns out he’s been working with this TV personality, John Tesh [former co-host of “Entertainment Tonight” and a pianist/composer who hired Landers as his music director]. That took a minute for me to digest; it’s very different from what we did together. Eventually I thought: okay, I understand now; I get it.
A few months later I went to the Los Angeles College of Music and Tim walked in again; it turns out he had been teaching there. I mean, what are the odds? At the time I was thinking about creating the Crosswinds Project and I started to wonder what would happen if Tim would be in the band. I called him and he said, “Sure, I’m not doing much these days.” That got the ball rolling.
The other musicians [in the Crosswinds Project] come from all over. Paul Hanson is a total aberration because he plays bassoon. I heard him play with Cirque du Soleil and I went: Wow, goodness gracious, wouldn’t it be great if he could be part of the Project? It would be a great selling point if it works but, then, there’s a question of: Would it work properly? Would it all make any sense? Sure enough, we got a chance to play together and it worked. We’re happening, we’re rolling, we’re learning.
I think I first heard [guitarist] Fareed [Haque] with Joe Zawinul [founding keyboardist of Weather Report and a key guest on Cobham’s “Spectrum” album] quite a few years ago. And he disappeared on me as well. Eventually he got a chair in music, teaching guitar, at Northern Illinois University and just stayed out of the way [of the music industry]. I kept tabs on him in [the band] Garaj Mahal; I played some of their music and I found it to be extremely, extremely challenging. It was amazing stuff , but I found it very difficult to get my head wrapped around it; I didn’t get the groove in a way that I felt comfortable.
Anyway, Fareed is an amazing player who also plays extremely well inside the group. Again, it gets back to what I was saying about the drum corps. It’s not a question of playing a lot of notes; it’s playing the right note at the right time.
Q: Last year you stretched your compositions with a big band directed by trumpeter Guy Barker during a six-night run at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Why do you like working with Guy? You’re both horizon-seeking, envelope-ripping, job-juggling musicians, composers, arrangers and band leaders. And he’s got an MBE to boot.
A: Guy is very easy to work with, very malleable. When I bring in my ideas, my concepts, the trick is I want him to present to me the music that I’ve written for 17 to 22 pieces without changing anything other than what I’ve decided to change. He’s great at treating me as well as my music. I try to keep him in his place by saying all those titles at the end of your name is not going to get you on the bus any sooner—we all put our pants on with both hands [laughs].
Q: You collaborated with Brian Gruber on a new book about your life, career and world view set during last year’s sets with Barker’s big band at Ronnie Scott’s. Why did you decide to go so deep with Gruber? I know he’s a fellow adventurer from Brooklyn, a new-media specialist who launched a live-streaming showcase for gigs in jazz clubs.
A: What’s really special abut Brian is that he keeps an open mind. He absorbs information and translates it really well. He puts what I say into words that I think the general public can handle. I feel very comfortable that the passages I’ve read represent what I’ve been through and who I am accurately. We sat around a table, having a drink or two, talking about things that have happened to me over 50 years, many of them funny, some of them funky. I mean, can you imagine arriving at the airport in Japan [in the ’70s] with [guitarist] John McLaughlin, [drummer] Tony Williams and [organist] Larry Young [all fellow members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra] and this airport officer comes up to us and says “Do you have anything to declare, any kind of drugs?” And the next thing you know Larry Young, who is 6-foot-7, who could have been a middle linebacker for the [Philadelphia] Eagles, is towering over this officer, who could have been 5-foot-2 and is used to talking to people who are around his height and is now looking up at this mountain of a man, and Larry, with this big, beautiful smile, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat from “Alice in Wonderland,” says to him: “Why? You got some?” [laughs]
You can just imagine—the psychological effect was fascinating. Those kind of stories have been going around the jazz world for years and years. Like the one about Louis Armstrong coming back from Africa, where he had been a cultural ambassador, with a suitcase full of unbelievable stuff [i.e., top-shelf weed], the best he had ever had, and “Pops” being nervous he was going to get busted. Now, I don’t know if it’s true but it makes a great story along the lines of: Nobody would have thought this could ever happen.
Q: You’ve honored your parents with three albums of globe-trotting tunes, starting with the 2007 release “Fruit from the Loom.” What key lessons did you get from your singing mom and your piano-playing dad, who gave you your first public gigs?
A: They both gave me great support. What I liked about Dad is that he would put so much material out there and he would just let me listen to it all—although he did not like rock and roll. Mom gave me the chance to make my own decisions, as long as they seemed to fall in line with what she thought was appropriate [laughs].
Q: And when do you expect to release your fourth parental/musical homage, “Tierra del Fuego”?
A: I’ve had to put that on hold because of the orchestral project with Guy [Barker] and the Crosswinds Project, which has just become a monster in certain ways. I got all the music done [for “Tierra del Fuego”] and started recording and everything just stopped because we ran into problems with personnel and proficiency. I had to change guitar players in Europe and I won’t get a chance to work on the European band until the fall.
There are so many projects on the stove. My big goal in 2019 is to reform The Art of Three [band] with [pianist] Kenny Barron and [bassist] Ron Carter. We played together in Japan and we played multiple times in Europe but we’ve never played together in the United States. As a matter of fact, I’ve invited them to work on my Art of the Rhythm Section [retreat in Mesa, Ariz.] in July for a day. What is beautiful about the trio is that I’ll ask [Barron and Carter] “What do you want to play?”—a serious question because they know about 300 tunes between them. We end up choosing something, anything, and we can just go anywhere at the drop of the hat in any time, any key.
We’ll talk about how rhythm sections worked in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, how musicians and bands developed along with repertoire when you did six weeks at the Blue Note and six weeks at the Cotton Club and six weeks at the Village Gate, when you wouldn’t leave New York for maybe two or three years. You would develop as a strong, flexible musician whether you played drums, guitar, bass, piano—any instrument—because you learned the fundamentals while you were playing probably 50 percent of those 300 fundamental tunes. You could be playing with Billy Taylor or Sonny Rollins, you could be playing a Latin piece or a waltz, but you always knew the music would always change. And that’s how you got the chops.
I’d like to have the [Art of Three] trio play 10 to 20 gigs, to make sure we don’t get in each other’s way. You know, Ron and I were both born in May. I’ll be 75 next May, if I’m fortunate enough to see it.
Q: When you were in elementary school your friends in Brooklyn dared you to prove to them that you were destined to become a drummer and you showed them by drumming on a fender of your family’s Chrysler. Do you remember the year and the make of the car?
A: I don’t remember the make but I do remember it was a 1952. I also remember it was a typical conversation among kids.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I want to be a doctor.”
“I want to be a lawyer.”
“I want to be a drummer.”
“You can’t play drums.”
“What do you mean I can’t play drums?”
“Well, show us.”
And the next move is you show them. I showed them.
Q: You like to give your compositions imagistic, atmospheric, playful titles: “Eggshells Still on My Mind, “Taurian Matador,” “A Funky Thide of Sings.” Are you a fan of crossword puzzles and other linguistic exercises?
A: I should spend more time with crossword puzzles but I get frustrated with them like I get frustrated with learning how to play chess. I go through this dialogue with myself: I’ve failed too many times. Maybe I should just leave it alone. But, then, maybe I should try it again. And then I try it again and some things work out and some things don’t and I get frustrated again. I’m just stubborn, or persistent. I kept on playing squash after operation after operation. So today I play tennis.
Billy Cobham: The Scoop
As a Brooklyn teen he joined a drum and bugle corps because it was cheaper than taking drum lessons.
The first record he bought was Michel Legrand’s soundtrack to the film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” The purchase was influenced by his pianist father, who played a lot of orchestral music at home.
He helped introduce the electronic drum controller in 1968, when he was a member of pianist Horace Silver’s band.
He taught music to street kids in Brazil and autistic kids in Wales.
Last year he recorded a tribute to pianist/composer Dave Brubeck with the Swiss Youth Jazz Orchestra.[
One of his five tips for drummers is maintaining proper posture. “If you’re not comfortable,” he told musicradar.com, “the people listening to you won’t be comfortable either.”
His composition “Stratus” is sampled in “Safe from Harm,” a massively catchy 1991 tune from Massive Attack, the English triphoppers.
His composition “Heather” is sampled in Souls of Mischief’s “93 ’Til Infinity.”
He has no idea who or what “Heather” is or was. “For some bizarre reason I thought it was [a] correct [title] for this particular piece. I was just resolute that it should be ‘Heather’ and it just stuck. Maybe it’s because the piece is very mystical.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Billy Cobham’s love/hate affair with crossword puzzles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.