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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.

Photo: Nigel Dick

The timing was right for Cobham to go out on his own, and he’d already been working on his debut solo album, Spectrum, as the maiden lineup of Mahavishnu was caving in. Recorded at NYC’s Electric Lady Studios, the album featured an eclectic collection of musicians, including Hammer, guitarist Tommy Bolin (later of Deep Purple), and bassists Ron Carter and Leland Sklar. “At first, I thought I wanted to continue to play like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and then I thought, ‘What would that really get me?’” Cobham says. “I wanted a groove. I wanted to lay it down. But at the same time I wanted to be free enough to play at a level that didn’t just make me sound like [the Meters’] Zigaboo [Modeliste] continually, throughout all the tunes. There’s already a Zigaboo. Why do I have to do the same thing? So I was trying to morph into a cross between technical prowess and simplicity, which in its own way is tremendously complicated to do.”

That concept—“the complexity of playing simple”—became something of a guiding principle for Cobham. With Spectrum having been well-received (it peaked at No. 26, higher than Between Nothingness & Eternity’s 41), Cobham’s label, Atlantic, requested more of the same. He was not interested. “I wanted to show everybody that I could write like John McLaughlin, and I couldn’t,” Cobham says. “I realized I had to back off, take it a little bit at a time, learn from my own mistakes, because I was out there by myself. And the last thing I wanted to do was make a mockery of the opportunity that was presented to me, grudgingly, by the record company, which was, ‘Okay, you did this, now do it again. And we’re not going to support you unless you do it again.’”

Fortunately for Cobham, Crosswinds, released in 1974, fared even better (No. 23), without mimicking its predecessor in style and approach. Those first two solo albums, along with Total Eclipse from late ’74—which, like Crosswinds, features the Brecker brothers and Abercrombie among its personnel—are often considered classic works of the era, moving beyond fusion conventions into other realms. Cobham has since released more than 40 further albums as a leader or co-leader (including the highly regarded Live on Tour in Europe with keyboardist George Duke in 1976), but while his solo releases continued to sell admirably through the end of the ’70s, most since then have found their way primarily to his dedicated fanbase. These days he doesn’t have a record label and takes care of his own business affairs.

Record sales aside, Cobham’s career during the past few decades has taken him to more than a few unexpected places, musical and otherwise, including memberships in Bobby and the Midnites, a band led by Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Bob Weir (“It was an important educational situation for me”), and Jack Bruce & Friends, featuring the former Cream bassist. He’s also been involved for decades as an educator, conducting workshops and master classes, including the Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat in Mesa, Arizona (this year’s summer session was, unfortunately, postponed).

Mostly, though, Cobham still just loves to create. He sees the music he’s making now as a culmination. “What I was doing then was laying the foundations for what I’m doing now. That’s why I went back and I redid my album,” he says of Crosswinds: Time Lapse Photos, which also includes some new material in the spirit of the album’s older songs. “I feel that I can add more now, with feeling, with justification. When I play, people hear things they’ve never heard before and that is very, very important, because if we play well, everybody’s standing up and they’re moving and they’re clapping their hands and having a good time, and they’re hearing something fresh. That’s exactly where I always want to be.”

Some things have changed over the decades, of course. The 75-year-old Cobham admits about his drumming, “I do it sparingly. As you get older you learn that you have to hoodwink the public into believing that you’re playing younger. I remember George Duke saying, ‘We have to put out the followup record of the Cobham-Duke Band.’ I found myself saying, ‘Are you crazy? What are you thinking? What are you smoking? What are you eating?’ I wrote back to George and said, ‘I’m sorry, man. I don’t agree with that particular approach anymore so I cannot in good conscience take part in anything that has to do with that record.’ That was the last time we spoke.”

The new interpretation of Crosswinds features Fareed Haque (guitar), Tim Landers (bass), Scott Tibbs (keyboard), and Paul Hanson (bassoon). “When you close your eyes you think it’s Charlie Parker playing bassoon,” Cobham says of Hanson. “It’s like, ‘Get out of here! That’s not true!’” Trumpeter Randy Brecker, who was on the original, turns up on the update and has been recently performing the music live with Cobham and the band—called the Crosswinds Project—as well.

“Before, I could not play that music anymore because the [original] band was gone,” Cobham says, noting that Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, and George Duke have all passed. “But now I can.”

Cobham, who has performed the music from Spectrum live during this decade, next plans to take a fresh look at Total Eclipse. In September he was also scheduled to return to the States to play a residency at the New York Blue Note, with Donald Harrison on saxophone and Ron Carter on acoustic bass.

But one thing he will not do is revisit the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “John is not capable of playing that music now. He’s not. On his best day he couldn’t play that stuff now,” he says with characteristic frankness.

Beyond that, says Cobham, “I want to continue to create an educational platform that brings people together who are really serious about honing their craft, not just to take a lesson. How do I do what I do better? What do I choose to play at the right time on this piece? How do I tune my instrument or how do I phrase my patterns to suit the music that we’re playing? What sticks do you use for a specific situation? What cymbals do you choose to play in a certain situation? What heads do you put on the drums? What sizes of the drums? What kind of wood is used? The more knowledge you have about the instrument you’re playing,” he says, “the easier it is to play. That’s what I’d like to continue to put forward, not in an aggressive way, just by what I do. Because it’s not about the talking. It’s about the doing.”


Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin on social media

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.