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.