The Legend is Still Being Written, Interview with Billy Cobham
by Al Bruting
Who Billy Cobham is depends on who’s looking. For jazz fusion fans, he is royalty inside the genre and has played with Miles Davis, John McLaughlin and a long list of musicians steeped in the history of the culture. What about to the rest of us who haven’t hit this part of the dial as often? Just like you didn’t have to be a basketball player to have enjoyed watching Michael Jordan fly, you don't have to be an aficionado to enjoy the strength and high level of energy that comes through loud and clear on his recent recordings. If you haven’t caught a good wave in a while surfing music, you’ll want to grab your boards.
Jazz fusion is most easily explained by its original 1960s term "Jazz Rock." It bridged the gap between jazz and rock in the late 60’s and early 70’s when rock bands started borrowing and fusing in jazz elements. The elements definitely vary, but the end result is jazz with a rock attitude.
We were able to sit down with Billy before his October 5th tour stop at the Jazz Café in Detroit.
This show is part of a 14-city USA and Canadian Tour, featuring Billy and his all-star support group consisting of Dean Brown (guitar), Gary Husband (keys) and Ric Fierabracci (bass).
While his words in talking were interesting,
they truly came to life while watching him play.
A - The direction it will take will be pure and positive. Will play our hearts out and hope to god that everybody understands what we’re doing. Music is a language that does not lie. If we feel good and play good, you guys will understand everything that we say without one word spoken. That’s what it’s all about. Everybody responds to music, even those that don’t understand it. It’s like body language.
Q - What made you interested in music and to want to start playing?
A - My mom and dad, my grandmother, my family were musicians. My brothers a musician, most of the people we knew in our community and inside our sphere of influence were musicians and it was part of my surroundings. It came very naturally.
Q - You grew up completely immersed in music then?
A - Absolutely. It wasn’t just North American music. Music of the Caribbean, music of Africa and Latin America, I have a Latin American background. All of these came at the same time and the transfer from one musical platform to another was very smooth and seamless. Even from the classical side. Everything as far as my father was concerned was related. So the classical side for us was about melodies and technicalities. The Beethoven’s and the Mozart’s were very important because they translated into what we to what we did through jazz. All these forms and procedures worked through a matrix into what we did.
Q - When did you know that drums were it for you. What was it about drums?
A - I really felt comfortable with drums and at about the age of six. I went to play a gig with my father and found out I could make some money at this. I though hey, what am I stupid, let me just try and see if I can get twenty five cents and get some bubble gum. And it worked.
Q - Do you play other instruments and what other instrument is the most interesting to you?
A - Piano and French horn, vibraphone, a lot of percussion related instruments mostly.
Q - What drew you to fusion?
A - There was a time in my home when pop music was big and the top artists were Frank Sinatra, Victor Damone, The Basie Big Band, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, the list goes on and on. When you have this on AM radio playing through old Crosley monophonic fifteen inch speakers with a very rich sound, somehow it kind of infected you. That’s what it was all about for me. Then we would switch over to the Latin station and you would have Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, and you didn’t have any edits. They knew the music so well they were like a Japanese actor that learned to play one part from a young age, so all of the music was played exactly the way it was designed and there were no overdubs. You had one chance to make a 78 rpm disc that was it. They played that way and were working 50 weeks a year on the road and got really, really good at what they did. All of them. Sinatra… I would put money down he knew 500 tunes by heart. Whatever key it was in, everybody knew it. That was what it was all about.
A - Absolutely. I learned from Miles for sure, from John McLaughlin, the posture and the direction of the music. A sort of yoga element that was involved, the physical element and the posture taught me to respect the music that we played. It’s not about what you say, it’s about how you present yourself through the music to the people. With Miles it was about management, with Trane it was about construction. For John Coltrane it was the construction of solos, for Dizzy Gillespie it was about the construction of solos, Max Roach on drums, again the construction of solos.
Q - So in posturing and constructing music, what makes a good session?
A - When everybody functions together to create a group personality that projects itself with unity. It’s a unified effort that comes through the music. To find somebody that can make that happen is very rare. Miles Davis is someone who can do it, Basie did it too.
Q - Does it take a lot of time playing together to start functioning and make this kind cohesiveness or does it happen immediately?
A - More often than not, yes. But the thing about it is, there’s some people who can make this happen in a blink. Miles stands out as one person who can do that.
Q - Do you teach music or is there anyone you have mentored?
A - I haven’t taught music in a school on a consistent business but there are a few. There’s a woman by the name of Sheila Escovedo, who you might know as Sheila E who was my student. Outside of that, a lot of people have asked for my advice. I try to help out, sometimes it has helped, sometimes not.
Q - If you had to, how would you categorize your music?
A - I am too close to the music and too subjective so I have will leave that to the architects. To me, it’s my music. It’s based on what I feel and what I have experienced, that’s it.
Q - Coming in to play in Detroit, are there any experiences you can add around the city or its people you would like to share?
A - I like the Tigers! The history of Detroit is rich with its music and all of the players coming out of it. There’s Motown, there’s so much going on in Detroit. You also have people like Ron Carter coming out of Detroit. It’s a place that stands on its own.
Billy Clobham is a musician who executes his craft with great feeling, power and exact precision.
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