Monday, October 14, 2019

The Cross Wind Tour: Legendary Fusion Master Billy Cobham w/ Randy Brecker at Atlanta's City Winery

Billy Cobham at Atlanta City Winery (photo by Ralph A. Miriello)
In celebration of his seventy-fifth year, the phenomenal drummer Billy Cobham formed a band to celebrate the music from his famous album Crosswinds. I was fortunate to catch Cobham and his friend and cohort, guest trumpeter Randy Brecker at Atlanta’s City Winery of September 25, 2019.

It was a special occasion for me as I first saw both Cobham and Brecker back in 1969, now fifty years ago, when they were original members of the then supergroup Dreams, in New York City. The recording group was at the genesis of the rock/jazz era that also sprouted horn-centered bands like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Ten Wheel Drive and Chicago. Besides Cobham, Dreams included trumpeter Randy and his saxophonist brother Michael Brecker, trombonist Barry Rodgers, guitarist John Abercrombie, lead vocalist Eddie Vernon and founders/songwriters bassist Doug Lubahn and keyboardist/guitarist Jeff Kent.

Dreams  Billy Cobham Jr., John ABercrombie, Barry Rogers, Eddie Vernon,
 Doug Lubahn, Michael Brecker, Jeff Kent and Randy Brecker 1970
William Emanuel Cobham Jr, was born in Panama but was raised in Brooklyn, New York from the age of three. Cobham’s love of music started him playing drums at the age of four. He had inherent rhythmic gifts and improved quickly accompanying his piano playing father on drums at the age of eight. He received his first drum set at age fourteen and was accepted by and attended the High School of Music and Art in NYC. At twenty-one, Cobham was drafted into the Army where he played for three years in the US Army Band. By 1968, he joined pianist Horace Silver’s quintet where he met and played with trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Bennie Maupin and bassist John Williams.

Cobham’s influential drumming became a sought-after commodity and he became the house drummer for Atlantic Records adding his drumming talents to CTI albums by Milt Jackson, George Benson and Grover Washington Jr. By nineteen-seventy, Cobham had been tapped by Miles Davis as one of the drummers he used for the albums Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.  It was at these sessions that Cobham met English guitarist John McLaughlin. By 1971 McLaughlin would leave Davis and pursue his muse to explore, write and play a supercharged style of music that joined elements of rock, funk and jazz-fusion. The band would become the legendary fusion band The Mahavishnu Orchestra, with McLaughlin on guitar, Cobham on drums, keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman and, bassist Rick Laird.

My first “live” exposure to the Mahavishnu Orchestra was back in the early seventies at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, NJ on September 22, 1972. There my friends and I were treated to a jaw dropping performance by this group that in no small part was enhanced immeasurably by the dynamic rhythmic explosion of Billy Cobham’s drums. Cobham, then twenty-eight years old, played a clear Fibes set of drums with his signature double bass drum, and what seemed like an endless array of snare, toms and cymbals. We simply had never seen a drummer like him who could erupt like a volcano and literally dance over the skins of his drums. His physical power and cat-like agility was astounding, a cross between a weightlifter and a ballerina. His performance and that band was simply mind blowing and I would never forget it.

Fast forward to today and Cobham is now seventy-five years old, having long ago codified his reputation as one of the most influential and revered drummers of the jazz fusion era.  Modern Drummer has called him “… a musician’s musician.” To celebrate his birthday year Cobham assembled a formidable band for his Cross Winds Tour. The touring band included guitarist Fareed Haque, Bassoon/Saxophone player Paul Hansen, bassist Tim Landers, keyboard artist Osam Elelwy.  Cobham was quoted as saying "It's been an adventure, these seventy-four years that I have been blessed to experience so much in my life." As a leader/composer, Cobham has recorded an astounding thirty-seven albums including his impressive debut Spectrum from 1973 through Red Baron from 2017.

Billy Cobham's Crosswinds

Crosswinds was his second release from 1974 and included an impressive cover photo taken by Cobham of a blustery cloud formation over the beach at Carmel, California. The tour is the forty-fifth-year anniversary for the album. Getting to see Billy Cobham and Randy Brecker reunited after so many years was a treat I couldn’t miss. The set included songs like “Spectrum,” “Spanish Moss,” “The Pleasant Pheasant,” Crosswind” and” Red Baron.” 

The band was exemplary with special note to the interesting use of Paul Henson’s electrically augmented bassoon and soprano work. Fareed Haque’s guitar work was intriguing, with improvisations that borrowed qualities from Latin jazz and at times crossed into Middle Eastern influence. Bassist Landers was solid and instep with Cobham throughout and keyboardist Elelwy added contemporaneous improvisations that were swift and agile.

Fareed Haque and Randy Brecker
For me the highlight of the show was listening to Randy Brecker’s trumpet work, which took flight, soaring over Cobham’s incendiary drum work. These two masters feed off each other symbiotically and still impress and amaze. Cobham’s continuously whirling motion is mesmerizing. His timing, vigor and intensity still evoke awe. Brecker’s’ fluidity, clarity and register range are still impressive and his extemporaneous ideas are always surprising.

Cobham, no matter how muscular his playing gets, always remains acutely sensitive to the musicality as well as the inherent timing of his drums. Even at 75, Cobham exudes the power and dexterity of a man half his age. On a drum solo in the set that I attended, he featured his two bass drums keeping a punishing alternating pace as his hands rapidly floated his sticks over his array of toms, cymbals and snare. The explosive rhythm that he generated percolated out of the man like oil erupts out of a freshly tapped rig. His playing flowed freely and filled the room with inherent energy that could be barely be contained.To say it simply Billy Cobham is a drumming force of nature, a whirlwind of rhythm that should not be missed. 

The remaining Billy Cobham Cross Wind tour (check it here) will be continuing around this country through the end of October with dates in Buffalo and Albany,NY; Natick Mass and Roslyn NY. If you have never witnessed this man play "live" it is an experience that you certainly should not miss.

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