Saturday, December 18, 2021

Billy Cobham: The Atlantic Years 1973-1978

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The 70s; what an incredible time for music. There were just so many possibilities as different genres began to merge, boundaries fell away and musicians were experimenting and pushing the limits of what was possible. And it was supported by audiences of enthusiastic fans, buying albums and attending concerts, helping to allow Billy Cobham to create this amazing catalogue of music in such an incredibly short amount of time; eight stunning albums in just four short years.”

-Pete Riley of Rhythm Magazine.

“You have to play it all very open and stick every stroke; no cheating, no pressing, no shortcuts.”

The attribution for this remark was a drummer who graduated as a Senior from my high school a couple of years earlier than me.

I had replaced him as the principal drummer and/or percussionist in all of the high school’s music groups: big band; Jazz combo; concert band and symphony [which was made up of musicians from both high schools in our city].

After graduation, The Senior Drummer in question had entered the US Marine Corps. Following six months of boot camp he had been selected for the USMC President’s Own Marine Marching Band and Chamber Orchestra based in Washington, D.C..

Home on leave and visiting us mere mortal Juniors, what he was referring to in the opening quotation was the manner in which the cadences that the USMC band used for marching had to be executed. Each drum stroke in each cadence had to be played, separately and distinctively.

Here’s a link to the USMC drum & bugle corps performing at the New York City 2019 Veterans Day Parade which features open stroking cadences.

Carried to extremes, you can get an idea of what this sounds like by checking out this link that features the Swiss Top Secret Drum Corps or this one.

Obviously with the drum heads tightened within an inch of their life, the use of large drums sticks and the very crisp and tight [“open”] sticking regimen, the snare drum cadences sound like firecrackers going off, or a string of firecrackers going off when a lengthy single or double stroke roll is played. 

The first time I heard Billy Cobham play drums, I was reminded of this explosive sound when I heard his snare drum, but why?

I mean, the guy is a Jazz-Rock drummer, where did he pick up on that sonority for his snare drum? And the interface between the snare and the bass drum also had an open drum cadence feeling to it when he was playing in-the-pocket Rock beats.

A little sleuthing found the answer.

Billy had a drum corps background both during his high school years and following that with four years in the US Army Band.

The crackling fulminations coming from Billy’s drum kit was further enhanced by the fact that he, like the iconic Jazz drummer Alan Dawson, was one of the early adopters of Fibes Drums. 

I found this information about Fibes online:

“The Fibes drum company, conceived from the words ‘fiberglass’ and ‘vibes’ , unveiled a product they deemed to be stronger than steel and lighter than wood. The tonal response of each shell (size for size) was reputedly identical and the internal vibratory response was superior, achieving a far greater sound than traditional materials.

The company manufactured acrylic shells in varying colors and finishes, and even offered chrome laminated acrylic.

Amongst the artists who used Fibes was Buddy Rich. Fibes made Buddy a chrome wrapped set in 1966 which was used for approximately a year, but Buddy used his Fibes snare alongside many of his later endorsements. Other noted endorses included Alan Dawson and Billy Cobham.”

Add big powerful open drum strokes to clear acrylic drum shells with a tonal response of each shell (size for size) … achieving a far greater sound than traditional materials and the resulting concatenation becomes a percussion eruption. 

Aside from these technical aspects of Billy’s drumming, the recordings in Billy Cobham: The Atlantic Years 1973-1978 are important for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they gave many of the young musicians who would go on to become icons of the Jazz-Rock style their start but also because they helped establish the synthesis of free Jazz, Jazz-Rock fusion and the use of electronic instruments that really took hold in Jazz in the 1970s. Some of the later albums even had healthy samplings of both Funk and Disco mixed into the music as both styles were very prevalent at the time.

Of course another reason for their significance is the music itself: bold; daring; totally different and new. These recordings represent a laboratory of experimental music, some of which is more successful than others. What is also of importance is the addition of unusual time signatures to the mixture of elements that make up Billy’s music on these albums. In those days, not many drummers could handle the first movement of the 'Solarization' suite, on the Total Eclipse LP with it's up-tempo meter that required the negotiating of its alternating bars of 14/16 and 13/16! 

Listening to these tracks today is like reaching back a half century to when “the world was young ''and everything seemed so fresh and new, full of the spirit of adventure.

Jazz-Rock fusion wasn’t every cup of tea, but for those who preferred this musical brew, Billy Cobham proved to be the perfect drummer to infuse the ingredients together

The Atlantic set comes with all eight Cobham albums each enclosed in a miniature “LP” sleeve with replicated cover art and liner notes. The listing of personal, tracks and other pertinent information are enclosed in a 56-page that also contains this narrative and annotations by Pete Riley of Rhythm Magazine.

“In the fertile musical ground of the early 70s, a young drummer was creating a buzz. Word on the street was that he had all of the individual attributes that other legendary drummers had; technical prowess, a pioneering sound, a musical compositional approach and a huge vocabulary of ideas but he had them all in one package. And he played with the power of a rock drummer but also had the speed and agility of a jazz drummer. The kit too was a hybrid of the two genres, expanded to include two bass drums, multiple toms and even a gong drum or mounted bass drum. And the ride cymbal was mounted on the left hand side; this was a kit that required no crossing of hands to play the hi-hat, it was played open-handed. And this was a different drummer.

Billy Cobham was astounding drummers everywhere. Born in Panama on the 16th May, 1944 his family settled in Brooklyn, New York in 1947. Soon he was playing drums in the Cub Scouts before moving onto the St Catherine's Queensmen Drum Corp. He later attended and graduated from New York's prestigious High School of Music and Art in 1962 and after a short spell of gigging around town joined the US Army, playing in their band until his discharge four years later. The development of his playing over this period was substantial and he was soon hustling for work around New York and earning the respect of renowned artists such as the Brecker brothers and Miles Davis, eventually joining forces with guitarist John Mclaughlin in the hugely successful Mahavishnu Orchestra.

After his tenure with Mahavishnu, Billy knew the time was right to release his own album, so enlisting his Mahavishnu bandmate Jan Hammer on keyboards, along with Tommy Bolin on guitar and Lee Sklar/Ron Carter on bass, they collectively went on to create one of the seminal jazz/fusion albums Spectrum (1973).

'Quadrant 4' kicks off the proceedings. A ferocious double bass drum shuffle with a unique take on the blues form, Billy is clearly not impeded by the demanding role of the feet and displays tremendous independence around the kit with trademark single-strokes and over-the-bar line ideas in his phrasing and composing. Next he approaches the title track's 7/8 time signature with fluent ease and masterfully negotiates the unison figures, occasionally playing alternating sixteenth-notes on the bass drums to create a powerful undercurrent. ‘Taurean Matador' again gets the same occasional double bass drum treatment as well as Billy's unique penchant for riding on the china cymbal for a dry dark sound.

The drum solo over the vamp at the end of 'Stratus' sounds like Billy has just been given the green light after holding down the piece's unfaltering groove for the previous five minutes. And as the track fades the listener is left with the impression that Billy wasn't going to be stopping any time soon, a seemingly endless supply of vocabulary and ideas delivered with flawless execution.

Keen to maintain the newly established momentum, Billy quickly hit the studio the following year though this time with a completely new line up featuring John Scofield on guitar and George Duke on keyboards, as well as a horn section featuring the Brecker brothers Michael and Randy on saxophone and trumpet and Garnett Brown on trombone.

Crosswinds (1974) begins with the 'Spanish Moss' suite and a different sound is immediately apparent. The raw intensity and energy of Billy's debut is replaced by a more lavish sound harmonically. The intensity is of course still there on pieces such as 'Spanish Moss: Flash Flood' where the 17/16 time signature of the album's first track is now played at a fiendishly fast tempo with the band negotiating the additional sixteenth-note in each bar with impunity.

'Pleasant Pheasant' is the album's 'Stratus' with a funky and infectious feel though of course with the inevitable blistering single-stroke bursts around the toms. In the middle of the piece Billy takes a solo over the head [in this case, the melody] negotiating its hits and syncopations with a variety of ideas though making frequent and varied use of his own 'Cobham Triplet' motif, a group of four notes with the first two played at twice the speed of the last. And Billy masterfully combines this at any point within single-strokes to break up the flow of notes.

'Heather' is a beautiful piece that sees Billy take on a supportive role behind George Duke's expansive keyboards and Michael Brecker's soaring sax solo. While the title track 'Crosswind' has a slight swing feel with Billy choosing to leave the sixteenth-note movement of the main groove to the bass and keyboards, creating a more skeletal part that allows the other musicians a little more space.

With the cymbals virtually still ringing from the Crosswinds sessions, Billy and band headed back into the studio to record Total Eclipse, the band's second album of 1974. With a few personnel changes the core of band Michael and Randy Brecker and John Scofield remained. And they come out all guns blazing on 'Solarization', the first movement of the 'Solarization' suite, with it's up-tempo meter making the negotiating of its alternating bars of 14/16 and 13/16 even more demanding.

'Bandits' sees Billy playing what's probably one of the earliest examples of a live drum kit and drum loop combination. In this case it's an early drum machine/percussion synthesiser that Billy locks in with perfectly, along with overdubbing some tympani. 'Last Frontier' is a drum solo that starts out with Billy's unique cyclical movements around the kit with the right hand occasionally moving down the toms to feature Billy's early use of a gong drum or mounted single headed bass drum, its deep staccato sound effectively contrasting with the high tuned and resonant toms. Next follow some lightning fast single-stroke/paradiddle combinations around the drum kit, sometimes utilising the both bass drums beneath cymbal crashes to culminate in a display of virtuosity that's as impressive today as over forty years ago.

Recorded live, Shabazz (1975) showcases a band performing their repertoire with the confident swagger of a group of musicians with a respectable run of gigs under their collective belt. Tempos are on the rise and arrangements changed to accommodate the musicians' new-found familiarity with the compositions. And from the drum solo intro of 'Shabazz' the intensity is high, with its complex arrangement and varied feels from 6/8 to up-tempo 4/4 negotiated with fluent ease. Next up ‘Taurian Matador' has been treated to a new arrangement, and perhaps more significantly is now played in 7/8 instead of its original 4/4. The band are clearly enjoying the challenge of the odd time signature, and again its fast meter just seems to encourage the musicians further.

'Red Baron' offers the listener a chance to relax with its easy groove. However Billy's always ready to take some rhythmic liberties during the over-the-bar line phrasing of head, sometimes fitting in an unfeasibly high number of single-strokes in between hits and yet always nailing the next with an uncanny accuracy.

While the core musicians of Michael and Randy Brecker, keyboard player Milcho Leviev and guitarist John Scofield remained, A Funky Thide Of Sings (1975) saw the band's horn section grow to incorporate two saxes, two trumpets and two trombones as well as adopting a more funk back-beat approach to the compositions. In mainstream music, disco was everywhere and its influences were beginning to be felt in other genres with the simplicity of the four-on-the-floor feel, 2 and 4 backbeat and repetitive bass lines having an undeniable appeal. And whilst elements of this sound are present at various points throughout the album the opening track 'Panhandler' features their influence well.

The next track 'Sorcery' however harks back to the previous albums' more complex arrangements with its more elaborate head, but again the funky 2 and 4 feel is prevalent. The album's title track again has that underlying disco quality with a strong repeating bass line and 2 and 4 backbeat. Of course Billy still finds the ideal points in which to apply some of his signature single-stroke fills around the kit.

'A Funky Kind Of Thing' is a drum solo that sees Billy embracing some processing on the kit. The main effect is an eighth-note delay that Billy plays with throughout, sometimes in a call and response manner and other times locking in with it to create a thicker sound.

The opening and title track of Life And Times (1976) immediately has a sound reminiscent of Billy's first solo album; the tempos are up, the odd time signatures are back and the horn section is gone. '2.29' is essentially a jam over the fiendishly difficult rhythmic sequence of 7/8, 7/8, 4/4, 7/8 made all the more challenging with its breakneck tempo!

'Siesta/Wake Up/That's What I Said' affords the listener a chance to relax after the two previous tracks with its ballad-esque sound. Its space also allows the individual drums to be clearly heard and they sound a little less resonant than the earlier albums, though still with the snare and toms tuned for a cutting sound and response, though now with less of the singing open tone heard previously.

'Earthlings' sees a return to Billy's signature double bass boogie first heard on 'Quadrant 4' while 'On A Natural High' hints at the disco sound again with its upbeat eighth-notes riding on the china cymbal and hi-hats.

The album finishes with 'Natural Essence' a funky mid-tempo vocal piece in its original form with the re-issue including an alternative arrangement and recording, featuring a more up-tempo feel and horn section.

Live On Tour (1976) sees Billy reunited with keyboardist George Duke in a quartet also featuring John Scofield on guitar and Alfonso Johnson on bass. The smaller line-up clearly affords the band a little more flexibility, occasionally getting experimental on 'Space Lady' and the synthesizer accompanied drum solo of 'Frankenstein Goes To The Disco', but throughout Billy is absolutely on fire. The confident pocket is of course in evidence throughout but the playing seems more audacious than ever, with the single-strokes sounding stronger and faster and the album culminating with a stunning double bass drum groove in 6/8 on the piece 'Juicy'.

The title track of our final album Inner Conflicts (1978) is a drum solo that sees Billy playing to a sequencer in 7/8 with the drums heavily effected at times, while 'Searchin' For The Right Door' is another drum solo, though shorter this time. The drum sound is back to the more resonant singing tones we're familiar with, while Billy experiments with an even more dynamic sound than earlier solos with the strong single-strokes replaced by a more exploratory approach.

The 70s; what an incredible time for music. There were just so many possibilities as different genres began to merge, boundaries fell away and musicians were experimenting and pushing the limits of what was possible. And it was supported by audiences of enthusiastic fans, buying albums and attending concerts, helping to allow Billy to create this amazing catalogue of music in such an incredibly short amount of time; eight stunning albums in just four short years.

As these albums progressed, it is interesting to hear the influence that funk and disco had on Billy's music as the more experimental pieces sometimes made way for music that demanded a little less of the listener. However one thread that weaves its way through all of the albums is the undeniable force of Billy's playing. From swinging backbeat grooves to tour de force drum solos, any piece is but a few moments away from displaying some combination of masterful playing that serves to illustrate why he is one of the most highly regarded musicians and drummers alive today.”

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