Billy Cobham

"Hey, jazz isn't dead! It's how I make my living!" Billy Cobham's initial reaction wasn't very positive. When the idea of a "supergroup" that plays jazz-tinged arrangements of Grateful Dead tunes was first suggested, the name alone--Jazz Is Dead--turned Cobham off, big time. But the musical possibilities...hmmm...that could be interesting.

Now, almost a year into the project, the veteran drummer is glad he signed on. Jazz Is Dead is very much alive. As expected, fusion fans have welcomed the band with open arms. And why not? With former Weather Report bassist Alphonso Johnson, Dregs keyboardist T Lavitz, Aquarium Rescue Unit young-gun guitarist Jimmy Herring, and Cobham, the man who practically laid the foundation for "progressive" drumming, the firepower in JID is, well, life-threatening.

What has surprised a few people is the reaction of deadheads: Yep, they're high on the band. "And they're everywhere," Cobham says. "We're performing all over the States, places I've never been to--like Ketchum, Idaho and Lincoln, Nebraska--places where you wouldn't think anybody would know, but 1,500 people show up!" And watching the "twirlers" absorb the music at a JID show is fascinating, to say the least. They happily float along, while Cobham and crew dig into some heavy, odd-meter riffing the likes of which haven't been heard since fusion's heyday. Jammin', dude.

The beauty of all this for Cobham is that Jazz Is Dead is introducing the drummer to a whole new generation of listeners, people who were barely out of diapers when he decided to focus his career in Europe in the early '80s. Many of the kids turning out to see the band don't know of Billy's tremendous career: his work with the biggest names in jazz, including Miles Davis; the groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra, where his advanced technique and unique playing style shook the drum world; his varied pop and rock projects, including work with artists such as Peter Gabriel, Jack Bruce, Bob Weir, and even James Brown; and his recording of over three-hundred albums as a sideman--twenty-five as a leader, including the classic, Spectrum.

All of this buzz about himself and Jazz Is Dead strikes Cobham as a bit funny. New, wide-eyed fans come up to him after shows, a bit stunned at what they've just witnessed, and wanting his autograph on the band's new release, Blue Light Rain (Zebra Records). "Some of the comments from the kids have been a little surprising," Billy laughs. He's actually been asked if drummers with names like Chambers, Phillips, and Beauford--players Cobham has so obviously inspired--are big influences of his. "I get that all the time," he says. "Guys like Dennis and Simon have kept a higher profile in the States, so I can't blame the kids coming up today for not knowing about me. Maybe I should be flattered; here I am, fifty-four years old, and people think I'm younger than those guys!"

Cobham certainly keeps the schedule of a younger man. Besides all of the time spent with Jazz Is Dead, Billy continues his solo and sideman activities. The last couple of years has seen him tour and record with the Jazz Superband, featuring Stanley Clarke and Larry Carlton. Billy accompanied guitarist Larry Coryell's "revisiting" of his Spaces material. And a record and tour is in the works with McCoy Tyner.

Billy's own band--or we should say bands--have him constantly globetrotting. The Norwegian contingent, the more acoustic-based Nordic, released one of the finest albums of the drummer's career two years back. Then there's Paradox, Cobham's German fusion trio that he works with regularly. And Billy's currently putting the finishing touches on a new album with another of his "groups," one that features trumpet-great Randy Brecker and keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, with a tour to follow in early '99. Plus he's quite active in far-reaching projects for UNICEF that are designed to help introduce jazz to kids the world over. Jazz is dead for Billy Cobham? Not hardly.

WFM: Some people might be surprised that you'd be interested in a project that features the music of the Dead, but didn't you actually play a few gigs with them?

BC: I did one show with those guys at Radio City Music Hall back in the early '80s, around the time of Bobby & the Midnights [the band featuring Cobham along with the Dead's Bob Weir]. So while I was aware of the scene, I wasn't all that familiar with the Dead's music.

WFM: So how did Jazz Is Dead come about?

BC: Michael Gaiman and Ron Rainey are Jazz Is Dead; they manage the band, and Michael had the original idea. He was an agent working for Monarch Entertainment [East Coast concert promoters] back in the '80s when I was with the Midnights--he booked some dates for us.

Michael called last year with the idea, but at first I didn't want to have anything to do with the Dead. My experiences with the Midnights were such that I didn't want to go in that direction again--been there, done that. But when Michael said, "We'll pick some of the Dead's best music, and you can arrange it anyway you want; the music will be a great platform for you," well, I was interested.

WFM: I was surprised to hear that you were doing this, because the direction your career had been headed seemed to be more acoustic-based. The Coryell Spaces Revisited record--and especially your Nordic release--showed a lighter approach, with more concern given to how the acoustic sound of the drums and cymbals married to the music.

BC: That's right. Those projects called for that approach. But I'm always changing things up and trying to place myself in different settings. That's exciting for me and keeps it challenging. I wouldn't want to play the same style the same way. Mix it up, man.

WFM: So you're enjoying laying into it a bit with Jazz Is Dead?

BC: Oh yeah. Once the four of us started playing together, we knew it was going to work. The music was strong. And once I knew that, I felt that people would be interested--but I didn't think it was going to take off like this. We're up there expressing ourselves and audiences are turning out, really enjoying the improvisational nature of the music. It's fantastic.

For me, personally, it's done wonders. I think people were starting to forget about me in the States. But now there's a whole new crop of people coming up who are digging this thing and finding out about me. Like I was telling you earlier, it's funny to have people come up after they see me play and ask if I've been influenced by Dennis or Simon.

WFM: You've led your own bands for so many years. Were there certain things you had to know up front before joining a band?

BC: I had to know who was playing and what type of people they are. I had to be sure that I would be able to contribute as a writer/arranger, because I've had bad experiences with that in the past.

WFM: You're talking about Mahavishnu and John McLaughlin.

BC: Well, I learned my lesson from him many years ago. It's very difficult to work with someone who doesn't want to accept your opinion, a person who is happy to accept what you play on your instrument to enhance his concept. To me, that's disrespectful. So, talking about Jazz Is Dead, we have musicians who are interested in having everyone contribute.

Ironically, the one tune on Blue Light Rain that isn't a Grateful Dead tune is one I wrote. But it wasn't because I suggested it. The other guys just started playing "Red Baron." I was like, "Let's play something else." I don't need to play that again. But they all liked the tune and wanted to do it. Then I thought we should change the arrangement a bit, but Al balked at the idea. He was like, "Let's just play." That's cool.

WFM: It's funny, but there are times when this band sounds so much like the fusion you were playing in the '70s--particularly the Cobham/Duke Band era. How do you feel about playing that kind of material and using that kind of approach again?

BC: Some of the material may sound a bit like that, but a lot of it doesn't. The stuff that does, well, I have no choice--that's the way I hear it. Of course, I want to vary it up. But that way of playing is my base. When the band goes into that type of thing, these things come out.

WFM: You wrote the book on the style.

BC: Hey, that's nice to hear, but you know, that's how I play. I mean, it's like I'm playing where I've been, playing my history. But I don't want to just stay there. I want to take it further, pull the listener somewhere else. And maybe that's when you'll hear me make a mistake, when something I'm trying to do isn't fully formulated. But, to me, that's music.

WFM: Are there things about this gig that you are finding challenging in regard to your drumming?

BC: There's one thing in particular: For me--and I think this is true for most drummers--there's a certain tempo region between fast and slow that is tremendously difficult to control. It's a region of tempos that doesn't feel natural and makes you want to slow down or speed up. A lot of the material that Jazz Is Dead plays falls right in that region, and I have to really focus on it when we're playing. It's all a matter of sustaining the notes and spaces between the notes, and having an understanding of what it will take for me to keep it going. Key element: posture. If I don't sit well, nothing works. Nothing.

WFM: Posture affects your tempo?

BC: Absolutely, because if I'm not sitting properly my body won't be comfortable and the groove will not be grounded.

WFM: Although you'll see some drummers who will change their position on the drums to adapt to the mood of the tune--like method actors. For a ballad they'll crouch a bit....

BC: No, that's not it! I guarantee it. Tempo, groove, attitude--it's how you're thinking, not how your body is positioned. There's an optimum way for your body to be positioned, and that's what has to be maintained. Related to that is how your feet are positioned. If I can't have them fully on the floor, to me, I'm not grounded. I can't play the patterns I want to play and get a consistent sound on one drum or from bass drum to bass drum.

I sit high. I have found that sitting at that level reduces the stress and pressure on my entire body. It's easier for me to sit up straight that way. It's easier to see and be seen, and everything on the kit is easier to reach--even with a large setup, which I like to use.

Your method actor analogy is interesting: Maintaining a "pose" and taking on a character when you play to me is false. Making music is about truth. I present myself through the drums and they reflect what I'm about, who I am, how I feel. What is an actor but someone who's playing a part? As a musician, you have to be the part.

So there I am, sitting correctly at the drums. I'm able to see what everybody is doing, I'm giving and getting cues from the rest of the band. I'm not in this alone; I've got to see everybody. I have to watch. I have to be alert, and that means no drugs. I don't have time for that stuff, man--there's too much I want to do. And I know it's a part of the deadhead culture--I'm offered it all the time...I mean, a lot--but I don't need or want an external crutch. It's just me being me and contributing to the musical situation.

WFM: You're working so much. Did you think you'd be doing so many dates at this point in your career?

BC: Absolutely not. I can remember back in the early '80s thinking that by the time I'm in my fifties I would want to be settled, perhaps with a tenured teaching position at a university, performing only part of the time. Now I'm just hoping that will be the case when I'm in my sixties! [laughs]

I've been full to the brim. My own projects keep me busy, especially in Europe, and things like Jazz Is Dead keep popping up. That's what happened with the tour I did with Peter Gabriel a few years back. It was like, "boom," he called, and there I was playing to huge audiences.

WFM: That must have been a fun experience. How did it come about?

BC: Manu Katché couldn't do one of the tours that had been booked, and so I got the call. Man, it was a scream. I had a ball, and the audiences were the biggest I'd ever played to. I think the smallest one was forty-five thousand people. We played an outdoor festival that had eighty-five thousand--the stage was three and a half miles away from the dressing room! And the audience response to the music at some of those shows was unlike anything I had experienced. So yeah, I feel fortunate.