Billy Cobham: Blowin’ in the Crosswinds

He was (arguably) the definitive drummer of the fusion generation. Now Cobham is returning to some of his 1970s music—but don’t expect a retread.

Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham (photo: Nigel Dick)

“The complexity of playing simple” is what Billy Cobham calls that thing that happens when he sits down behind the drums. “How can I play simply in the most complex situations?”

Some who’ve watched him perform over the past five decades might be raising an eyebrow or two right now. If Billy Cobham’s drumming isn’t complex, whose is? At full throttle, he is ferocious; the noise he creates is thunderous, his limbs are a blur. Even in a quieter, more contemplative setting, he seems to be everywhere at once. His timing is off the charts, his ability to stay a step ahead and anticipate a coming change unmatched.

If what he’s doing is simpler than it appears, it’s not because Cobham has been tricking the listener with sleight of hand(s); it’s that he’s a master of focus, the channeling of intuition. His gift is making less sound like more, and a lot sound like even more than that. He knows when laying back is a shrewder choice than exploding in every direction, and he knows, without overthinking it, what he can do and what he doesn’t want to do. His goal is to be a connector, a complete musician.

That’s the philosophy that Cobham brings to Crosswinds: Time Lapse Photos, his new album, recorded at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Sweetwater Studios and produced by Mark Hornsby. Although it shares a title with his 1974 Crosswinds album—his second solo release after leaving the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the John McLaughlin-led band that pretty much defined the fusion genre and put Cobham at or near the top of all of those “world’s greatest drummer” polls—it’s not exactly a remake. Instead, Crosswinds: Time Lapse Photos is a rethink, a different way of approaching the compositions on that earlier album, filtered through 45 years of growth. The subtitle is the key to understanding Cobham’s intention.

“I have the extra dimension of an expanded imagination, based in a comparison of where I was in 1973-74 to where I am now. The experience factor kicks in. Back in 1988-89, I had already made an updated version of it,” he says, referring to the material from Crosswinds, “playing it live with people like Joe Sample when we were on tour in Europe as guests of another artist. I continued to play the material and to study the artistry of arrangers, how they did what they did to be creative in their own right. Nothing is new, and the whole thing is just to try to find an effective way of making a presentation that honestly affects who you are at the time and how you seek to present your personality through the notes. So this continues to grow; I keep morphing into different situations as I play.”

Cobham is calling from his home in Switzerland. He’s lived there now for a few decades, crediting his decision to become an expat to what he calls, bluntly, “the dumbing down of the American musical scene.” Basing himself far from the heart of the jazz community has given Cobham a perspective he doesn’t feel he can get in the United States. “I ran the other way,” he says. “In Europe, it’s difficult to be dumbed down. There is so much to learn that’s available to you. It’s right on your doorstep. You just have to look and you have to observe.”

There’s a no-b.s. quality in the way European musicians interact, Cobham adds, that he doesn’t always find in the States. “You can do something and people go, ‘Okay, I get it.’ Or they’ll give you an honest answer like, ‘That’s awful. Why are you doing that?’ But at least you get an answer! You don’t come into a place and everybody goes, ‘Yeah, Billy, sounds good, man.’ When you get put down for something, it’s also a lesson: Don’t do that again. You’re an idiot if you do it again, especially if you’re not sure. If you don’t agree with it, you can always follow it up; you are the person that’s in charge of that. At least you’ll have an audience of one, and that will grow eventually. Music just does not lie, man.”

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Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.