Cobham performing at WOMAD in July 2005
|William Emanuel Cobham Jr.|
May 16, 1944|
|Musician, songwriter, bandleader, educator|
|Labels||Atlantic, Columbia, CTI, Elektra, GRP|
|Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jack Bruce, New York Jazz Quartet, Jazz Is Dead, Bobby and the Midnites, Mark-Almond|
William Emanuel "Billy" Cobham Jr. (born May 16, 1944) is a Panamanian-American jazz drummer who came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s with trumpeter Miles Davis and then with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. According to AllMusic's reviewer, Cobham is "generally acclaimed as fusion's greatest drummer".
Born in Colón, Panama, Cobham moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, when he was three. His father worked as a hospital statistician during the week and played piano on weekends. Cobham started on drums at age four and joined his father four years later. When he was fourteen, he got his first drum kit as a gift after being accepted to The High School of Music & Art in New York City. He was drafted in 1965, and for the next three years he played with a U.S. Army band.
After his discharge, he became a member of Horace Silver's quintet. He played an early model electric drum kit given to him by Tama Drums. He was a house drummer for Atlantic Records and a session musician for CTI and Kudu, appearing on the albums White Rabbit by George Benson, Sunflower by Milt Jackson, and Soul Box by Grover Washington Jr.
Cobham started the jazz rock group Dreams with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, and John Abercrombie. He moved further into jazz fusion when he toured with Miles Davis and recorded Davis's albums Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In 1971, he and guitarist John McLaughlin left Davis to start the Mahavishnu Orchestra, another group that fused rock, funk, and jazz. Cobham toured extensively from 1971 to 1973 with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which released two studio albums, The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973), and one live album, Between Nothingness & Eternity (1973). The studio versions of songs on the live album were released on The Lost Trident Sessions (1999).
In 1980, he worked with Jack Bruce in Jack Bruce & Friends. On October 30, 1980, he joined the Grateful Dead during the band's concert at Radio City Music Hall. He performed a long drum solo session with the band's two percussionists, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, also known as the Rhythm Devils. In 1981, Billy Cobham's Glass Menagerie was formed with Michael Urbaniak on violin and EWI, Gil Goldstein on piano, Tim Landers on bass, and Mike Stern on guitar. Dean Brown replaced Stern when he left to play with Miles Davis. Glass Menagerie released two albums for Elektra Musician.
In 1984, he played in the band Bobby and the Midnites, a side project for Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, with Bobby Cochran and Kenny Gradney, and recorded the album Where the Beat Meets the Street.
In 1994, he joined an all-star cast Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and the results appeared on the album Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Najee and Deron Johnson Live at the Greek. The concert was predominantly Clarke's music, but all the musicians contributed material.
In 2006, Cobham released Drum 'n' Voice 2, a return to the 1970s jazz-funk sound, with guests including Brian Auger, Guy Barker, Jeff Berlin, Frank Gambale, Jan Hammer, Mike Lindup, Buddy Miles, Dominic Miller, Airto Moreira, John Patitucci, and the band Novecento. The album was produced and arranged by Pino and Lino Nicolosi for Nicolosi Productions. In 2009, he released Drum 'n Voice 3. Guests included Alex Acuña, Brian Auger, George Duke, Chaka Khan, Bob Mintzer, Novecento, John Scofield, and Gino Vannelli.
In December 2011, Cobham began teaching drums online at the Billy Cobham School of Drums, a school in the ArtistWorks Drum Academy.
Cobham is one of the first drummers to play open-handed lead: a drummer who plays on a right-handed set but leads with his left hand on the hi-hat instead of crossing over with his right (and also has his ride cymbal on the left side, instead of the traditional right). He typically plays with multiple toms and double bass drums and was well known in the 1970s for his large drum kits.
Cobham moved to Switzerland in 1985.
Many musicians have cited Cobham as an influence, including Kenny Aronoff,Steve Arrington,Ranjit Barot,Danny Carey,Jimmy Chamberlin,Dennis Chambers,Brann Dailor,Matt Garstka,Chris Hornbrook,Thomas Lang,Mac McNeilly,OM,Opeth,Chris PennieMike Portnoy,Thomas Pridgen,Sivamani,Bill Stevenson,Jon Theodore, and Tony Thompson.
When I first started playing with Mellencamp, I was trying to be Billy Cobham. [...]
I had no respect whatsoever for simple rock and roll drumming, I only liked heavy fusion and technical drumming like Billy Cobham [...]
[...] When I heard Cobham play, and I tell you this in retrospect: I'm a fan of every drummer on this planet. I think there are so many, so many great drummers out there that it's hard to create a list. But Cobham is a pioneer, for sure. Cobham is the closest I've heard a drummer playing with an Indian soul. He had the whole speech thing down. [...] Cobham, when he played, I could hear him talk. His snare drum, that's the heart of his language. He really had this speech happening on the kit. That's what stopped me in my tracks. Because I'd been listening to tabla players, and I said, Hold on. This guy, he understands. He understands where this whole thing is coming from. So he was probably the first big influence. And I just love everything he's done, man.
[...] I drew my influences from some of the more jazzier guys like Billy Cobham (John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis) [...]
Dennis Chambers: I keep my ideas fresh when I listen to people like Vinnie Colaiuta, Gary Husband, Lenny White and Billy Cobham
You must have a big list of drummer influences.
Brann Dailor: [...] for jazz, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Billy Cobham [...]
Emil Amos: [...] Musically, when we first met, the three things that we immediately in conversation bonded on was dub, Pink Floyd, and Billy Cobham, the great drummer.
Al Cisneros: [...] I think I was 17. I was at a friend's house and he was saying, 'I can't believe you haven't heard this.' Put it on, put it on. It was "Inner Mounting Flame," and on the song, "Awakening" the break with Billy Cobham on the kit...He throws down this one break after McLaughlin subsides these chords. It was so decisive that we just got up and left the room. There was no point in continuing conversation. It was done. That evening had been closed by that drumbeat. And to this day I think that in terms of drumming, "Inner Mounting Flame" with Cobham is Mount Olympus. There's nothing more. It's all. Saying Billy Cobham is a great drummer is like saying the sun's bright, but...I don't even know what to say about Mahavishnu. It was so humbling. It was an epiphany to hear the potential of these musicians and their conviction. Hearing something like that can make you feel like you've just been messing around in a sandbox your whole life.
There's an obvious fusion feel to a lot of the material on Heritage. Where did that come from?
Mikael Akerfeldt: [...] the fusion aspect comes from Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham... [...]
Q: Which players have most influenced that aspect of your style, especially with respect to the polyrhythms?
Chris Pennie: [...] Billy Cobham from the Mahavishnu Orchestra are important influences.
[...] when I was growing up played with so many different types of people, and did so many different styles. Everyone from Billy Cobham to Art Blakey [...]
I play drums as well, and I sometimes feel like it's almost impossible for a drummer to be truly great at playing both rock and jazz. Do you think you have to pick one of the two and focus on that?
Bill Stevenson: I think so. What I was trying to do was to be both. I reckon Billy Cobham is maybe the closest: He's the everyman's drummer, like he can playing everything better than everyone. And I felt like I was heading that directionmaybe I wanted to be Billy. [...]
I have to say that my all-time favorite guy ever is Billy Cobham. I even listen to The Traveler and Power Play, his '80s records. [...] I'm totally infatuated with him. I love the way he plays and I think it's so natural, powerful and dynamic at the same time. I pattern a lot of stuff after him.
[...] I would go down to 7th Ave. South. That was a club in New York City that The Brecker Brothers used to own. [...] I saw Billy Cobham for the first time and saw God. When they broke into "The Inner Mounting Flame," it was the most awesome performance I've ever seen in my life. My God, it's still embedded in my soul seeing him play like that. To have that command and power plus his chops were just super-human. Before that, I'd never seen anyone like Billy Cobham.
[...] Listen to Billy Cobham on a Mahavishnu Orchestra album. It's like a juggernaut heading towards a cliff edge. It has a feeling of momentum and rushing towards something.