Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Cobham, Billy (William)
Drummer Billy Cobham came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s as one of the premier drummers in jazz fusion. His precise and explosive drumming style were a perfect fit for the exploratory work of trumpeter Miles Davis and for guitarist John McLaughlin's fusion group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Cobham's fluidity and command of multiple musical styles have made him one of the most influential drummers in music during the last forty years.
Cobham left the United States in 1980 and relocated to Zurich, Switzerland, where he has continued to be an important contributor to the music of both jazz and pop artists. His discography boasts session work with everyone ranging from Gil Evans to Carly Simon and James Brown.
William Cobham was born on May 16th, 1944 in the Central American country of Panama. His family relocated to Brooklyn, New York when he was three years old and by the time he was seven years old he was banging drum sticks on the bumper of his father's 1951 Chrysler. Cobham's first musical experiences came playing with his father, who was a pianist. He was also exposed to jazz music just as equally as he was Latin music, soaking up the sounds of Machito, Johnny Rodriguez and Tito Puente along with Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole.
Cobham attended the High School of Music and Art in Harlem on 135th Street and joined the United States Army Band in 1965 at the age of twenty one. He stayed in the service until 1968 and upon leaving he joined pianist Horace Silver's band for a year. During his stay in the Army Band, Cobham appeared on his first recording, guitarist George Benson's album Giblet Gravy. Appearing on the album with Cobham were pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and Dominican born percussionist Johnny Pacheco.
In 1969, Cobham drummed for the fusion band Dreams, which featured the Brecker Brothers on brass and reed and John Abercrombie on guitar. Dreams was notable for being one of the first jazz-rock bands of the era. Cobham is heard on 1970's Dreams and on 1971's Imagine My Surprise. It was through his association with Dreams that Cobham came to the attention of trumpeter Miles Davis who enlisted his services for studio sessions beginning in January of 1970.
Although Cobham isn't heard on the main music of Davis's Bitches Brew he plays on the Wayne Shorter track "Feio," which was released as a bonus track on the compact disc reissue in 1999. Cobham is also heard on the Davis studio sessions that became A Tribute to Jack Johnson. This Davis album was largely a bridge from his work done on Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way but the feeling is based more heavily on rock n' roll on this album.
Cobham plays a very imagiaitive swinging, ride heavy beat on "Right Off " and also sets the mood with his subtle transitions between dynamics as the ensemble gets quieter before Davis's solo brings them back to the original forte dynamic. On "Yesternow," a track on which producer Teo Macero spliced together tapes from a later Davis recording session that featured Jack DeJohnette on drums, Cobham is heard on the beginning of the song playing spare cymbal work.
Historically, most of the musicians that played with Davis during his electric phase went on to plant the seed for the jazz fusion movement, which was taking full shape by 1971. Along with guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Rick Laird, keyboardist Jan Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman, Cobham was one of the original members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This group explored complex time meters, experimental group improvisation and incorporated advanced harmonic and melodic figures.
In 1971, the group released their debut album The Inner Mounting Flame. The explosive nature of Cobham's playing is heard during the beginning of "Meeting of the Spirits" and continues with thunderous tom fills that complement the rapidness of the melody perfectly. On "Awakening" Cobham opens up the song with a commanding series of drum rolls as the band proceeds to play several segments of lightning fast unisons melodies before Jan Hammer's solo. Other songs of note from The Inner Mounting Flame include "The Dance of Maya," "The Noonward Race" and "You Know You Know."
In 1973, Mahavishnu released their second album entitled Birds of Fire. While many of the elements found on their debut were present, the group also explored funk music as heard on "Miles Beyond" but continued to develop their dense sound with songs that displayed their advanced dexterity and musicianship. Birds of Fire was the last studio album that Cobham appeared on; he was replaced by Narada Michael Walden. Other songs of note from this album include "Resolution," "Sanctuary" and "Open Country Joy."
In 1973 Cobham released his debut album as a leader called Spectrum. Considered to a classic by many drummers and fans alike, the album explored Cobham's extensive drumming technique and also showcased his abilities as a composer. Songs of note include "Stratus," >"Quadrant 4" and "The Pleasant Pheasant."
The 1970s were a productive decade for Cobham as a leader. He released several albums including 1974's Total Eclipse, 1975's A Funky Thide of Sings and 1976's Life and Times.He also lead a group with keyboardist George Duke which featured bassist Alphonso Johnson and guitarist John Scofield The group released the album Live On Tour In Europe and it featured the song "Almustafa the Beloved," composed by Alphonso Johnson.
In 1980, Cobham left the United States and relocated to Zurich, Switzerland where he has remained to this day. Cobham played with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce in a band called Jack Bruce and Friends in 1980 and also performed with conductor Gil Evans on the album Live at the Public Theater. Cobham rejoined John McLaughlin in 1984 for the album Mahavishnu, an album which was supposed to feature the original line-up of the Mahavishnu Orchestra but it failed to materialize. In addition, Cobham and McLaughlin had problems with each other and Cobham only appeared on the album, skipping out on tour support for the album.
In 1985, Cobham released Warning for the GRP label and it featured the song "Red & Yellow Cabriolet."Cobham continued to release solo projects and work with other artists during the 1980s before returning to his fusion roots in the 1990s.
In 1993, Cobham released The Traveler, which featured the song "On the Inside Track." In 1996, Cobham worked with German bassist Wolfgang Schmid and guitarist Bill Bickford in a trio called Paradox. The trio released their self-titled album that same year and songs of note from it include "Shoes in Seven."
In 1998, Cobham was the founding drummer for the Grateful Dead cover band Jazz is Dead, which featured bassist Alphonso Johnson, guitarist Jimmy Herring and keyboardist T Lavitz. Cobham is heard on the groups first release but was replaced in 1999 by drummer Rod Morgenstein. In 2006, Cobham teamed up with the Colin Towns HR-Big Band, which plays the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This meeting marked the first time in his career that Cobham had revisited this musical chapter of his past. Cobham is heard on "Cosmic Strut,"taken from the album Meeting of the Spirits – A Celebration of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Throughout his forty year career, Billy Cobham has evolved as one the most celebrated and spirited drummers in music. His freedom and ability to play the full range of the drum kit set him apart from many of his contemporaries. His participation in jazz fusion influenced a generation of musicians whose ears were thirsty for sounds that moved beyond the traditional jazz threshold.
Select Discography As Billy Cobham
Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973)
A Funky Thide of Sings (Atlantic, 1975)
Dreams (Columbia, 1970)
Imagine My Suprise (Columbia, 1971)
With Miles Davis
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970)
*appears on bonus material included with the CD reissue in 1999
A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971)
Get Up With It (Columbia, 1974)
*appears on one track, which was taken from a 1970 recording session
With the Mahavishnu Orchestra
Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971)
Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973)
Between Nothingness and Eternity (Columbia, 1973)
Contributor: Jared Pauley