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JT Notes: The Skins Game

Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham in 1974. (photo: Arnen Kachaturian)

A band, the old saying goes, is only as good as its drummer. So it’s basically a no-brainer that this drum-focused issue of JazzTimes should refer to the work of several superlative bands. Principal among them, of course, are the manifold incarnations of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, who helped define a style that has lost none of its power to enthrall over the passing decades. Major respect is also due, as Ethan Iverson’s Chronology column makes plain, to various ensembles helmed by the great Charli Persip, including the Dizzy Gillespie big bands of the 1950s and Persip’s own Jazz Statesmen. And then there’s the group that, of all those featured in these pages, is probably the closest to this writer’s heart: the Mahavishnu Orchestra, featuring the incomparable Billy Cobham.

Whenever I think of Cobham, I remember how it felt at age 16 when I first flipped over my vinyl copy of the debut Mahavishnu album, 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame, and put the needle down on side two. What I heard was the take-no-prisoners drum part that opens “Vital Transformation”: a rat-a-tat snare pattern taken at an almost impossibly rapid pace, peppered with brutal hi-hat clutches that at first appeared to be random but then, after careful counting on my part (difficult at that tempo), revealed themselves to be accentuating the contours of 9/8 time.

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.