Few drummers playing today could command as much respect and admiration as Billy Cobham. He has played on countless albums with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Miles Davis, George Duke, Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock to name a few, and tonight he will be gracing the stage of the Everyman Theatre in Cork with his Spectrum 40 show. Spectrum was the title of Cobham’s first album as a bandleader and forty years after its release it remains one of the most influential jazz-fusion albums of all time.
“Jazz fusion is a combination of jazz and rock” he explains, “and it’s [about] taking certain aspects of both: the intellectual side of jazz and the hard rock approach. The first jazz-fusion record really was ESP, a Miles Davis recording, so you can start from there and you’ll find a lot of people who have done this, mostly on the instrumental side.”
In the forty years since Spectrum, Cobham has continued to write, record and tour but over the years he says his approach has changed. “My mindset has changed over forty years. I’m no longer a spring chicken. When I was a kid I used to just lay it down and play all of the notes that I could in a bar. Now I try to provide an impression that I do that, by playing only what I feel is necessary and letting the audience imagine the rest.”
It’s not every day you find a drummer who also composes his own music too. “I write and compose my own material. Depending on the musicians that are involved I will write more intentionally for each so that they [understand] what I would like to have done. If it is a more free and open concept I will leave a lot of space for the players to create more inside that template and just provide melody, harmony and the rhythmic support, but after that for improvisation it may be up to the individuals. So it depends on who is playing and that’s the way I write.”
On the cusp of turning 70 Cobham understands the importance of free time, approaching his work in a methodical manner. “I don’t like jam sessions; I feel they’re a waste of energy. It might be fun to play but when I come to play generally it’s about earning a living and finding a way to balance myself with what’s going on outside of my life as a musician. It’s as important as you get older to have down time. That down time is every bit as important as what we do when we play on the stage. That way you get the best of both possible worlds.”
His work has been sampled extensively. Most notably by Massive Attack who lifted full bars from his track ‘Stratus’ for their hit single ‘Safe From Harm’ back in the early 90s. Cobham says this can only be positive for him. “Your stuff is being pirated and pilfered no matter what. You have to have the right mindset to bring it into a situation where you go, ‘ok, fine, have my stuff’. The more you spread it out to those [people] you don’t know, the better off you’re going to be. That’s important. I’ve come to grips with it. Anybody that’s hearing my stuff will now be spreading my concepts and ideas to others and that’s important. I need an audience so they’re doing me a favour.”
Billy Cobham plays the Everyman Theatre tonight as part of Cork Jazz Festival.