As a sideman, he’s played jazz with Horace Silver, Stanley Turrentine and Freddie Hubbard, fusion with Miles Davis, George Duke and Stanley Clarke, funk with James Brown, soul with Roberta Flack and even rock with Peter Gabriel, Carly Simon and The Grateful Dead. Add to that already impressive CV Billy Cobham’s own work as a leader – with an album discography that to date numbers almost fifty solo projects – and you’ll begin to appreciate that he’s an artist and musician of real substance and stature.
After gaining world renown playing behind a mountainous drum kit as a founder member of high-decibel jazz-rock pioneers, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, alongside Brit guitarist John McLaughlin between 1971 and 1973, the Panama-born/New York-reared drummer inked a solo deal with Atlantic Records that got off to an auspicious start with the album, ‘Spectrum,’ now considered a jazz-rock/fusion classic. Cobham spent five productive years with Atlantic, releasing seven albums in all for the company, which are now available all together in a superb 8-CD box set retrospective, ‘The Atlantic Years 1973-1978.’ With 67 tracks and a running time of almost six hours, it represents a cornucopia of riches for jazz-rock fans in general and Cobham aficionados in particular.
The 71-year-old drummer, now living in Switzerland and still going strong, recently talked to SJF’s Charles Waring about his Atlantic tenure and reflected deeply on his long and illustrious career…
What circumstances led you to sign with Atlantic Records back in 1973?
They were the only ones who would look at what I was doing. For me at the time, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was coming to an end and I decided that to somehow benefit from the positive activities that I was part of over the past two and a half years that I was with them I needed to make a record. I was trying to find a way to continue and keep the momentum up and, in my case, to find work for myself. So I went to the management of Mahavishnu and asked if they would give me a hand in finding me a label. Columbia weren’t interested and then I met George Butler of Blue Note, but he passed, and then in the end what happened was that I met an interesting individual whom I never met before but who was quite aware of me named Mark Myerson, who was the head of A&R at Atlantic Records at the time. He had some clout to sign some artists and I was one that probably at the time he though, yeah, give him a shot. But they underestimated me and it was to my benefit because I didn’t even know if I could do anything. It was just fundamentally a case of ‘give the guy 35 grand or whatever, if that’s what he wants.’ So Mark gave me a shot and I made some demos and I decided whom I wanted to use, which was Lee Sklar (bass), Tommy Bolin (guitar), and Jan Hammer (keys), plus Jimmy Owens (flugelhorn), Ron Carter (acoustic bass), Joe Farrell (flute/sax), and this was all based on just instinct fundamentally to just make sure that the people I had surrounding me were some of the greatest musicians that I’ve ever worked with ever or respected in my life at that point in time; people whom I could trust and to do what I asked them to do. And I was very lucky, I was very fortunate.
You made a great debut album, ‘Spectrum.’
Yeah – not that I knew (laughs). I had a great engineer, Ken Scott, who I had already worked alongside with Mahavishnu so of course I went to all of the elements that I felt “we should be up to make this happen, real quick.” If thought that I have all my ducks in place and if I’m prepared properly then I’m sure I can make a record for 20 or 30 grand and as it turned out, I made a record for $22,000 bucks and I kept the rest for myself because nobody else was paying me anything. We recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s place (Electric Ladyland studios in New York). We did maybe two or three days and made the tracks. If we started on Tuesday, we were done by Thursday and by Friday I was on the flight to London to Trident Studios where we mixed in two or three days and were done. When I came back (to the States), even the manager of Mahavishnu, who helped me, Nat Weiss, wasn’t expecting to get a phone call from me except if there was a problem. I said ‘hey, Nat, how you doing?’ He said ‘okay, what’s wrong?’ I said ‘nothing, I’m home.’ He said ‘why, what happened?’ I said: ‘I made a record, it’s done.’ And then there was silence. And so ‘Spectrum’ has kind of been a model for me over time. I think the recording studio is a laboratory and you prepare it with the right ingredients and everything in the right order and if everybody has a mutual respect for each other, then the chances are that you’re going to come up with something that you can stand behind if you pick the right people – and that’s what producers are supposed to be able to do. As opposed to the stories I heard about, like Laura Nyro, who would go into the studio for six months and have dinner there and would come out with no tunes at all because she couldn’t think of anything. I realised then that that was just the way life was back then; people looked at it that way… and now here we are, we’re recording in any room, getting plug-ins to simulate what we would like to record in, and with the end product, no one would know the difference now anyway. There’s no time to know the difference now because the period of concentration is so short that all people want to feel is a groove. If it’s all clear to them and makes sense for them in fifteen seconds then hey, you’ve got yourself a hit – maybe.
How did it feel to lead your own band for the first time?
I was absolutely petrified. I did it out of necessity. I had no one else to take care of me. I made some big, big mistakes along the way and they were my teachers. As best I could absorb whatever that was and analyse what I was doing wrong, there was no one else there for me.
You had to be self-reliant then.
Yeah and in the process you have two options. You either hang your head low and go oh, man, I give up or you go: what the heck was that? Let’s go through this one more time in my mind: what can I do to better myself? What can I watch out for? After a while I understood that yeah, I made a mistake the first time and it probably won’t come around exactly the same way the next time but I should be prepared for it anyway so at least I can staunch the wound – but it’s going to take awhile before I get this right. I have very few people who will stand for me or support me, so I need to do this on my own. I tried and the biggest thing that came out of all of that was that if the band is organised, if the music is organised, if you can really play at every station in the band, if you have musicians who you can depend on too, you can really, really pay tribute to you through the music, the chances are you’re going to win. This is not about being the Jackson 5 or anybody like that; it’s just about earning a living and getting food on the table all the time with something that people can say “yeah, I remember that band,” no matter whose name is on it, no matter who’s playing in it. That’s a big thing, man. Just to get there. So I feel and consider myself very fortunate. I had some good days but I had a lot of bad days and I try my best to be respectful of the fact that I actually got through that stuff somehow, paid the bills, stayed out of everybody’s way and maybe in essence, I fell through the cracks on a lot of things…you won’t find a lot of Grammys here. As a matter of fact, I got an honourable mention once. That’s it. So, that’s okay too because I know that when you win a Grammy you’ve still got to be able to get on the subway and it costs a dollar and fifty cents. You have to pay that.
How do you view the period in time covered by the box set? What memories do you have?
I feel honoured actually that Rhino and Warner Bros in the UK, would even consider this knowing where I’ve come from. In many ways it’s like almost really great. (Laughs). Not quite. I put it into the same category as getting a phone call from someone at Oxford University who’s saying that they would like me to come and speak while I was in London playing at Ronnie Scotts. They were going to send a car for me on the day I was supposed to go but two or three days later they said because Georgia is on the brink of going to war with Russia, the president of Georgia’s here and we’d like to speak to him instead, so sorry, goodbye. (Laughs).So the box set is a nice thought.
As well as your solo albums there’s the ‘Live On Tour In Europe’ album with George Duke on the box set. What do you remember about those days on tour with George?
It was a whirlwind. The recordings that we did came out of the Montreux Jazz Festival. I think for one of the concerts we did in 1976, we opened for The Crusaders. I never saw those guys very often, especially like Stix Hooper. If I saw him in the street, I would never know him. And he’s the last one alive now from the whole band. Wilton Felder died a couple of days ago… Joe Sample is gone, Wayne Henderson is gone. Those four guys were the original band. So it’s like the people that you’d rub elbows with, that was just one band, but we were on a George Wein tour that summer. I was with George Duke and it was unbelievable to think of it now, but we did about forty concerts, something really silly, and the bands that were touring together were Weather Report, Cobham-Duke, Shakti, Larry Coryell duo, and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. All on the same bus. It was crazy, man. But we were all over the place..
Of all the musicians that you played with, from Horace Silver to Miles Davis, which one taught you the most do you think?
(Muses) That’s a great question. I had profound experiences with Horace Silver, with Miles in the studio – watching, no one talked. Things happened and you decided for yourself – that’s the beauty of music. I think now it’s probably the same but in a different way for the other generations that come after me. But for me, I was left to figure it out on my own and hope that what I experienced, what I saw, gave me ideas as to which direction in which to go. I feel very lucky, again, fortunate, that I had the opportunity to see some things and interpret them and try to figure out; okay, what’s good about this for me? Okay, what’s bad about this for me? Not necessarily consciously, but many times it was more like “I won’t do that again, no, that’s weird” and the bottom line is that you avoid these things if you can. So being in the presence of Jaco (Pastorius), Wayne (Shorter), Joe Zawinul, Alex Acuna and Manolo Badrena (all members of Weather Report in 1976) I learned a lot. These are situations where if you’re clever you step back and if you have the mindset and want to learn something, you back away, take a step backwards and you watch and you absorb and you play in your mind to understand what just went down and what’s positive about it and what isn’t. What was funny and what was not. And the serious sides of things. You walk away with a lot.
Moving on from the box set, do you have any new musical projects in the pipeline?
Yeah, I’m about to release ‘Extended Works,’ which is me with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and it’s all of my music. Guy Barker was the orchestrator and he conducted the recording sessions. I’ve mastered it now and I’m just kicking around what to do for pictorials and visuals. I know I’m going to make a limited edition LP, it will be a double record. I’m hoping that we will be able to do something live with it in the fall, one year from now, I hope.
Did you choose the material that was selected?
Yes, I did. These are the days when I decide what Billy Cobham is going to record and how the record is going to look. I am the record company so I have to pay everybody. I had to give my budgets and decide how many CDs I wanted to press and that kind of thing because it’s done.
So in terms of the material that you’ve covered, did you feature any songs that appear on the boxset?
Yes, actually ‘Red Baron,’ which is on the boxset. And I’d have to take a look at the rest but I don’t think anything else is from that. We didn’t do ‘Stratus,’ we did music from more recent recordings.
Finally, Billy, what’s been the highlight of your career so far?
Surviving! (laughs). Surviving in this music business. I’m now seventy-one years old and I can look back and talk to some of my mentors as my uncles. I was just on the phone with ‘Uncle’ Roy Haynes (the legendary jazz drummer) and he’s about one third shorter than me and I’m not that tall and when I can say to him Uncle Roy, when I grow up I want to be just like you, knowing that he’s approaching ninety, if he’s not ninety already, and just have a decent conversation with history, a griot. What he’s been through and the way that he’s been treated, he is a marvel. This is a man who helped me get into the School of Performing Arts in 1959 at the age of fourteen years old. His nephew is my good friend Artie Simmons, a good trombone player. We all lived in the same neighbourhood, with George Cables, the piano player, and that was our first jazz band. I look back on those things and it’s great to sit down and talk with them and so that’s what it is all about for me. In a nutshell, my life has not been perfect by any stretch of imagination, but I’ve learned from my mistakes – maybe not enough but somehow it’s enough to get me through to the next day. Try not to make the same mistakes twice, try to staunch a wound with the mistakesthat I made that I never saw before, try to write better and make music that is more meaningful, try to contribute as an artist the best I can, knowing that this is not sport, this is an art form. If you respect it in that way, it will respect you.
Billy Cobham’s ‘The Atlantic Years 1973-1978’ is out now via Rhino/Warner Jazz.