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Billy Cobham Biography

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Billy Cobham In-depth Biography

Generally acclaimed as fusion}'s greatest drummer, Billy Cobham}'s explosive technique powered some of the genre's most important early recordings -- including groundbreaking efforts by Miles Davis} and the Mahavishnu Orchestra} -- before he became an accomplished bandleader in his own right. At his best, Cobham} harnessed his amazing dexterity into thundering, high-octane hybrids of jazz} complexity and rock & roll} aggression. He was capable of subtler, funkier grooves on the one hand, and awe-inspiring solo improvisations on the other; in fact, his technical virtuosity was such that his flash could sometimes overwhelm his music. After debuting as a leader with the classic Spectrum} in 1973, Cobham} spent most of fusion}'s glory days recording for Atlantic}; briefer stints on CBS}, Elektra}, and GRP} followed, and by the mid-'80s, Cobham} was de-emphasizing his own bands in favor of session and sideman work. Even so, he continued to record for various small labels with some regularity.

William C. Cobham} was born May 16, 1944, in Panama, where as a very young child he became fascinated with the percussion instruments his cousins played. When Cobham} was three, his family moved to New York City, and at age eight he made his performance debut with his father. He honed his percussion skills in a drum-and-bugle corps outfit called the St. Catherine's Queensmen}, and attended New York's prestigious High School of Music and Art, graduating in 1962. From 1965 to 1968, he served as a percussionist in the U.S. Army Band}, and after his release, he was hired as the new drummer in hard bop} pianist Horace Silver}'s band. Cobham} toured the U.S. and Europe with Silver} in 1968, and also moonlighted with Stanley Turrentine}, Shirley Scott}, and George Benson}. After eight months with Silver}, Cobham} departed to join the early jazz-rock} combo Dreams} in 1969, which also featured the Brecker} brothers and guitarist John Abercrombie}. From there, he landed a job in Miles Davis}' new fusion} ensemble, and played a small part in the seminal Bitches Brew} sessions; he also appeared more prominently on several other Davis} albums of the time, including more aggressive classics like Live-Evil} and A Tribute to Jack Johnson}.

Cobham} and guitarist John McLaughlin} split off from Davis}' group to pursue a harder rocking brand of fusion} in the Mahavishnu Orchestra}, which debuted in 1971 with the seminal The Inner Mounting Flame}. With Mahavishnu}, Cobham}'s fiery intensity was given its fullest airing yet, and his extraordinary technique influenced not only countless fusioneers in his wake, but also quite a few prog rock} drummers who were aiming for similarly challenging musical territory. The 1972 follow-up Birds of Fire} cemented his reputation, and by this time he had also become something of an unofficial in-house drummer for Creed Taylor}'s CTI} label, known for a smoother, more polished style of fusion}; here Cobham} backed musicians like George Benson}, Stanley Turrentine}, Freddie Hubbard}, Hubert Laws}, and Grover Washington Jr.} Unfortunately, the volatile group chemistry that made Mahavishnu}'s recordings so exciting also carried over into real life and the original lineup disbanded in 1973.

Deciding to make a go of it on his own, Cobham} formed his own band, Spectrum} (which initially featured ex-Mahavishnu} cohort Jan Hammer} on keyboards), and signed with Atlantic}. His debut as a leader, also called Spectrum}, was released in 1973, showcasing an exciting blend of jazz}, funk}, and rock} that benefited from the presence of guitarists John Scofield} and Tommy Bolin} (the latter better known for his rock} recordings); it also found Cobham} experimenting a bit with electronic percussion. Spectrum} is still generally acknowledged as the high point of Cobham}'s solo career, and holds up quite well today. Cobham} followed Spectrum} with a series of LPs on Atlantic} that, like fusion} itself, grew increasingly smoother and more commercial as the '70s wore on. For his second album, 1974's Crosswinds}, ex-Dreams} mate John Abercrombie} joined the band, as did keyboardist George Duke}, who would become a frequent Cobham} collaborator over the years; that same year's performance at Montreux} produced the live Shabazz}. After Total Eclipse}, Cobham} moved more explicitly into commercial jazz-funk} with 1975's A Funky Thide of Sings}, which featured an expanded horn section. He pared the group back down for the improved Life and Times} in 1976, and also played Montreux} again, in tandem with Duke}.

In 1977, Cobham} switched to the CBS} label, which set him firmly on the path of commercial accessibility. In addition to his records as a leader, he'd remained highly active as a session drummer, and began to focus on that side of his career even more in the late '70s. By 1980, he was done with CBS} and began pursuing side opportunities, playing live with the Grateful Dead} and Jack Bruce}, as well as the Saturday Night Live} band. He drummed for the Grateful Dead} side project Bobby & the Midnites} in 1982, and recorded three albums for Elektra} in the early '80s with his new quartet the Glass Menagerie}. During the mid-'80s, he cut three commercially oriented LPs for GRP}, and spent the next few years stepping up his international touring and absorbing a healthy dose of world music}. He played Peter Gabriel}'s 1992 WOMAD Festival}, and the following year recorded The Traveler}, inspired by a sojourn in Brazil. In 1996, he formed a more acoustic-oriented quartet called Nordic} with three Norwegian musicians; the following year, he also started a German-based fusion} outfit called Paradox}. In 1998, Cobham} began playing with a group called Jazz Is Dead}, which devoted itself to jazz} reinterpretations of Grateful Dead} material; their album Blue Light Rain} proved fairly popular among Deadheads. As Cobham} maintained his touring, session, and bandleading activities, Rhino} released the excellent two-CD retrospective Rudiments: The Billy Cobham Anthology} in 2001. ~ Steve Huey ~ Steve Huey, All Music Guide

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