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.

If Cobham had just continued to play this part straight for the rest of the tune, I’d have been amazed enough. But then he went and dropped some crazy fills in there too—“drop” being the perfect term, as they seemed to plummet from the top of his kit to the bottom. How could anyone fit so many notes into such a small allotment of time and still have it work out? The coup de grace was when, about 45 seconds into the track, he switched from hi-hat to ride cymbal and the music got even more intense, despite the fact that he was now ostensibly playing a less complex part. Could this be called subtlety? Hell, no. But sometimes subtlety isn’t what’s called for, and what Cobham was doing suited the volcanic thrust of the music to a tee. This was real back-away-from-the-stereo-and-fall-on-the-floor-in-shock stuff.

Given my early, formative experience with Cobham’s playing, I was particularly curious to read what he had to say in his recent JT interview with Jeff Tamarkin, which you can read here. The way he views his style and his overall musical goals may surprise you. But then again, great drummers can be masters of the unexpected.

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.