Billy Cobham on his stellar '70s solo run and gear evolution

Few artists have defined and personified their field as powerfully as Billy Cobham. Here, the fusion king talks about his solo albums, double bass drumming and why you should never just play the numbers.

"Open season, man," says Billy Cobham looking back at his ground-breaking drumming with Mahavishnu Orchestra and as a solo artist in the 1970s, records that showed just what was possible for players within the still young jazz-rock fusion movement. "All I could do was just do what I do and hope that it worked, because there was no one to ask," he says. "It was okay, it worked out for me, I had a lot of opportunities to make mistakes that no one would ever know, because nobody else was doing it."

Billy Cobham's influence on drumming is hard to overstate.

Born in Panama and raised in New York, Cobham initially caught attention when he joined Horace Silver's group in 1968, confounding his contemporaries with his open-handed playing style. He may have begun his career as a hard bop/bebop drummer but change was in the air and Cobham was right at the forefront of the nascent jazz-rock scene.

He cut 1970's Spaces with fusion guitar shredder Larry Coryell and joined the group Dreams alongside John Abercrombie and Randy and Michael Brecker. He worked with Miles Davis at the height of the trumpeter's electric period, appearing on Live-Evil and A Tribute To Jack Johnson, and cut three vital records with the Mahavishnu Orchestra that were touchstones in shaping the sound and direction of fusion - The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds Of Fire and Between Nothingness & Eternity. But that iteration of Mahavishnu Orchestra proved short-lived.

"It was two and a half years, done," says Cobham. "But we worked a lot, man. In two and a half years, I wouldn't be surprised if we did 500 shows. We were hitting it. When the dust cleared, I think I got married and divorced twice in that period. I was never around. End of story, it was really rough. It was good to get that happening. It was destined to stop. It had to. We were working so hard."

Out on his own, Cobham signed a recording deal with Atlantic as a bandleader, releasing a run of classic albums between 1973 and 1978, beginning with the hugely influential Spectrum and wrapping with Inner Conflicts. Those records took in everything from the full-throttle jazz-rock of 'Quadrant 4' to the funk of 'Red Baron' and the spectacular drum showcase 'Frankenstein Goes To The Disco'. Now Atlantic has reissued those recordings in a new box set, so Rhythm sat down with Cobham to revisit his seminal early solo work.

Billy Cobham's influence on drumming is hard to overstate. He was a pivotal figure in popularising double bass drumming, the use of the China cymbal, the open-handed style, and polyrhythmic playing. Concurrent with the development of Cobham's drumming was the growth of his kit. With Horace Silver in the late '60s, Cobham played a standard four-piece kit, with a single 20" bass drum. "The reason for the small kit was because it was easy to transport," says Cobham.

"After Horace Silver, I was playing dates fundamentally on the same kind of drumset because you can put it on a plane or whatever, trap cases, then I got an opportunity to work with a band called Dreams and in that band we needed a 22" bass drum, not a 20". It was a single bass drum, everything else fundamentally stayed the same, 5½" snare drum, the toms were 14" and 16", there was no 18" at the time. Then along came Mahavishnu."

On his first album with the fusion giants, Cobham used the same single bass drum configuration but the success of the debut allowed him to experiment with two 22" bass drums for their second album. "That recording was Birds Of Fire," he says. "I'd never played two bass drums before in my life so it was about getting my head wrapped around why I needed another bass drum when I could hardly play the one I had. Because [guitarist and bandleader] John McLaughlin wanted it that badly, I took a shot and tried to learn what to do with it.

At first I thought I could woodshed, just put it into a room and practise alone. That was absolute lunacy because we were working all the time. Then I tried putting it in my hotel room but I couldn't get out of bed because the drums were getting in the way. I couldn't open the door to the room because of the drums, I had to take the drums and put them on the bed to get in. It didn't work.

So I decided to just put the bloody drums on the stage and let's see what happens. I've never looked back since. When you're on stage, trying your best not to make mistakes and look like an idiot, now you're thinking about what can I do? Sound-check becomes rehearsal, practice. They're setting up, my drums come up first and I'd just sit at the drums and figure out what the heck can I do with this thing! And as one became more accustomed to what's happening it became an integral part of what I do musically."

Music in mind

There had been other drummers with two bass drums in their set-ups, like Louie Bellson and Rufus 'Speedy' Jones, but they tended to only showcase the double bass drums when they took a solo. In Mahavishnu Orchestra and then on his own albums, Cobham used the double bass drums to build grooves. As he tells it, he was simply trying to figure it out as he went along. "It's not like we had a whole lot of choices here," he says. "You played what you heard in your mind before you played it on a drum as usual. Things would always be in my head."

The music was rhythmically complex. The title track, 'Birds OF Fire', featured the guitar line playing in phrases of 5 + 5 + 5 + 3, while the drums played a cycle of 6 + 6 + 6. "In a way it was a blessing because it was consistently the same," says Cobham. "It made you think in layers, multi-tasking, and you start to go, how does this line up? The brain really will sort things out for you if you give it a chance and also you become more and more comfortable with that because that's not changing.

"You start to add stuff to it but you're still playing within the box because it works. You're not trying to force things outside. It has to come down on '1' or the pickup to '1' in the bar before, otherwise you're out there by yourself. Everyone else is feeling this and, for me, you've got to keep the band together. Once you do that, then you can do anything else you want, once everybody understands where you're going and why you're doing what you're doing. This is not talking, this is playing, always playing."

Exploring the Spectrum

After parting ways with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham originally conceived of his solo debut, Spectrum, just as a calling card for his skills and services. "I didn't have any way to sell myself," he says, "so the whole objective was just to sell whatever I do as an individual to whomever may want to use me on a date or if I wanted to play somewhere in a band.

"That was the whole objective originally, I just need a record so everybody understands who I am, and I never needed a record to do that because they already knew who I was. So I was recording in the studio anyway and forgot that concept because I never was out of work.

"I was always working until it became apparent that the record was really doing well and the only person who didn't know about it was me."

Spectrum featured an impressive array of players including Jan Hammer on keys, Tommy Bolin on guitar, Lee Sklar and Ron Carter sharing the bass duties, and the album was put together remarkably quickly. "A lot of bands back in those days would record, make a master, shrink-wrap the whole thing, ready to go, and then all of a sudden they didn't like one tune, so they take it all back and do it again," says Cobham.

"I know a band that did that three times, it cost $750,000 to make a record. Ours cost $22-grand in 10 days, from beginning to end, finished. I travelled to England to mix and I still came away with a $10,000 profit because it was a production deal and that was where I got paid. This was paying my engineer, producer, blah blah blah, and we still came away with money.

"It was because we were prepared. We had three days recording, three sessions a day, I had the food sent in. My thing is I don't want to be in the studio any longer than I absolutely have to because it is a laboratory. When you're in the studio, in your laboratory, you're just tinkering, tinkering, tinkering. Time is money. In

New York, back in those days, everybody was working on somebody else's record, you don't want to have to pay them to hang around and the cost is going up. If you're prepared and you invest some of that money in rehearsal, where everyone knows all the notes, we fix all the parts, we know who is playing solos where, a studio costs maybe a grand for one day, back in those days; rehearsal, six hours, maybe $200. Do the math."

The drummer and the Duke

Crosswinds, from 1974, featured the late, great keys player George Duke, who in addition to an impressive solo career also worked with the likes of Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and Stanley Clarke. "I think I met George the first time at the Beacon Theatre in 1972," says Cobham.

"He was playing with a saxophonist called Cannonball Adderley. The Cannonball Adderley Band and The Steve Miller Band were the headliners and Mahavishnu was the opening act. And then we played as the opening act and they refused to go on after us. We had two shows to do. They wouldn't go on until it was agreed by the promoters that we would close the second show.

"All they did was they played one show. Steve Miller opened for Cannonball Adderley and then we played the second show and that was it, because everybody left after we finished playing the first show - 1,700 seats and everybody left because they figured the show was over."

Despite that bumpy introduction, Duke and Cobham had a short but fruitful collaboration that included their 1976 release, The Billy Cobham-George Duke Band: Live On Tour In Europe. "My objective when I put that band together with George was to share," says Cobham, "but George was already a very successful guy without me and he was on the brink of becoming even more successful, so he had a management team that was clearly only for him and I, Billy Cobham, was just a stepping stone.

"They figured they'd use me, make the transition and he'd keep going. As it turned out, we did one year and it was dead by December and I went on to do things on my own and George became the George Duke everybody knows."

The Live On Tour In Europe record showcases the range of Cobham's playing, from laying it down on 'Hip Pockets' to cutting loose with a spectacular solo in 'Frankenstein Goes To The Disco'. "In that band you'd have a soloing position, a time when you played alone," he says. "You can do whatever you want. I chose to try to bridge from where we came with where we're going.

"I'm thinking, this is me, this is how we are and I just want to go in this direction, so I'm going to do that. I knew what the next song was going to be so I just set that up coming out of my solo, and everybody knew me well enough to know what we were going to do next."

Total Eclipse, from 1974, had Michael and Randy Brecker in the band, both of whom had played with Cobham in the Dreams line-up four years earlier. The siblings would stay on the roster for A Funky Thide Of Sings the following year. Asked if there were ever any conversations between the drummer and the two brothers about how the music was developing and the evolution of fusion, Cobham emphatically replies, "No, there were none. They were really just rabid artists, they wanted to play anything and everything; they were sponges.

"They were amazing, god bless them, because I wrote a lot of mistakes more than anything else and they just tried to make it happen anyway. Someone got a hold of them, I don't know who, made an agreement to work with them as The Brecker Brothers and they took their leave. That's it."

Enter the Funk

A Funky Thide Of Sings, from 1975, really put the spotlight on Cobham's ability to groove, although that wasn't anything new to the drummer himself.

"I used to play with a band called Stuff before it was called Stuff and before Steve Gadd played drums in it," he says. "It was called The Encyclopaedia Of Soul and it was with fundamentally the same guys. We used to play dances. It was also King Curtis, that same general family of people and some things rub off, that's just the way it is. That's been in my community for years so I would play that too."

That funk element had always been in the DNA of Cobham's solo work - it was there on Spectrum in the track 'Red Baron', a song sure to be on the set-list at any fusion jam night. Asked whether he is surprised by the enduring popularity of the record, Cobham replies, "No, because it has a very strong base that people remember but what runs through the whole base? The strand of thought is the groove, it's consistent, you can dance to it, you feel comfortable with it. It's very strong and permeates everything.

"I made some records called Drum'n'Voice and fundamentally they are about that, it's only about laying it down, man, but in order to do that you have to understand that everything here has to work in sync with itself because if you're a little bit out of sync you're going to be uncomfortable and you lose that groove. The level of intensity cannot be breached, everything has to be very comfortable, so that means you have to think it here, it has to happen over and over again as if it was more than second nature."

Inner Conflicts, the last of the studio albums for Atlantic, saw Cobham incorporate electronic percussion into his kit. "Yeah, but that wasn't the first time I used it," he says. "The first time I used electronic percussion was in 1968 with a company called Meazzi. They had electronic drums in Italy, it worked out pretty nice but it's not the same. It was just the very beginning, not only me but Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach and Tony [Williams], they approached the four of us. I went with the electric set, a set that you would never see go on a plane anymore.

"It came with a speaker cabinet as big as a door, we put a big bonnet-hat square case over it. It never broke down. It was so poorly made. That was the beginning of it. It all sounded like 'pew, pew, pew' or 'dat, dat, dat'. Even the bass drum. There were no different sounds. You had four buttons but they all sounded like 'dat, dat, dat'."

For Cobham the electronic elements in his set-up were always a complement to the acoustic drums, and never a substitute for them. "The problem for me with electronics," he says, "somebody like Simmons wanted the pads to take the place of drum sounds, they wanted samples and that's never going to happen, never, to the extent where you buy a set of drums and play them electronically as if they were an acoustic set. No chance. You can get a certain amount of information from an electric set but no way will you ever play them like an acoustic set."

In 2013, Cobham went out on the road with the Spectrum 40 tour, revisiting his 1973 solo debut. Given the four decades that has passed it's not surprising that the drummer says that his approach to that music has evolved. "Yes absolutely man, because I can hear the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic content separately and collectively where

I could not before," he says. "That's why many, many percussionists who are drummers stay as rhythmatists because they're thinking numbers. There is nothing coming from the tone. They can't hear it all. They have nothing to do with phrasing. With all that said, they're great players but they're rhythmatists. They only play rhythms. They don't play music. They play one-third of it. You specialise in one area.

"They can play it fast, they can play it slow, but that's it. Then you add tone - what tone and why that tone at what time? What tone-tuned drum do you play with what rhythm and how do you phrase it? Now you're being creative as a full-blown musical artist."