Bill Watrous
Billy Cobham

Self- Expression

The Panamanian American jazz drummer, composer and bandleader talks to Les Tomkins in 1974.

Interview: 1974

Source: Jazz Professional

Billy Eckstine

Billy Cobham

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Interview Transcription

I’ve enjoyed your two Atlantic albums, “Spectrum” and “Crosswinds”. I also attended your band’s appearance at the Rainbow, London—which took place a day late. It seems you’ve had some travel problems.

Oh, the delays—trucking strikes in France, airplanes that didn’t have compasses; it’s been that kind of a tour. I don’t know what to say. It’s been a grudgingly successful tour—that’s really how I could put it. You know, every concert has been a fight. Once we got it started, everything was okay, but just getting started, or leaving to get to the next place—it’s been very much of a chore.

Making you sorry you became a bandleader, is it?

No, not at all. Looking from that standpoint, I’ve learned a lot—and I guess I’ll continue to learn as I go along. I’ve had this particular lineup, which includes guitarist John Abercrombie, reedman ‘Michael Brecker and trumpeter Randy Brecker about three months now. I always get my own people together to play. I don’t believe in people making commitments for me; when it comes to playing my own music, that’s impossible.

In recent years, your drums have been heard in quite a diversity of settings. I believe you started playing very early in life. What was the first drumming you heard?

Well, my family are drummers—we’re from Panama. So my native playing comes from a lot of Latin drummers; I heard steel drums, stuff like that. Sure, that’s all natural to me. My father was a pianist, who played mainly with Latin musicians. I worked first in clubs, dances—anything I could get, in any shape or form, I would play, because it meant lot to me.

Would you credit your development musically to New York?

Definitely. I was already in New York when I really started playing, having been there since my family migrated from Panama in 1947. I was very lucky that they did; I would have had to come to New York eventually anyway. I don’t know what would have happened had I developed playing elsewhere; whether it’d have been bad or good, I don’t think I’d care to know. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.

What do you name, at the age of thirty, as the landmarks in your career? Working with a Miles is an important one, presumably.

Sure—Miles was important. Tony Williams and Max Roach, to a degree. Listening and talking to those people, I would say. Also John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra was very important in my development. Yes, that was a freer outlet for me, in comparison to what I had been doing—very much so. Although when I was playing with a band called Dreams I had a lot of freedom as well. But not as much as the Orchestra; there I was completely free to do what I wanted to do. So I’ve been very fortunate. In many musical ways it was very sad that it had to end when it did—prematurely. But, you know, life still goes on, and with the band I have now I’m developing in other ways.

Some of your music now is what could be termed ‘free’, but do you believe that there has to be an essential feel—some kind of pulse?

There’s an essential feeling, yeah, but I would hesitate to say that, only in that I find that the terminology of pulse and beat and feeling and all that varies from concept to concept. Music is considered something different for everyone. It’s a manner of communication which no one can really label, outside of giving a general term as music. It’s a very mystical thing to me, because if the elements are right there are many things that can happen at a recital . . . well, a concert recital. Gosh—it starts to take on effects that one would never consider as being part of music. But it is.

You regard a concert as a very different proposition to an album, do you?

For sure. What I played at the Rainbow was to me a recital. What I would like to project would be a show, with lights, and with very definite, dependable sound—getting across to the people from an audio standpoint, and projecting yourself correctly. The two together make up something completely different than a concert recital. Most bands, if they’re lucky, get to that point where they can consistently give concert recitals. Then there are bands, such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who can afford to carry around with them the appropriate equipment and people to handle their thing. There’s a reason for carrying a lot of stuff—they’re putting on a show. I would certainly like to devise a type of experience that would be fully adequate visually, aurally and musically. That’s a very expensive proposition; therefore there have not been too many bands around that have done it.

So you have this distinct recital concept. To my mind, a lot of so–called concerts I’ve attended have comprised what amounted to music for dancing, as much as listening. This, I must say, is also the feeling I get from your records, but it could not be said of a lot of what you played at the Rainbow. Do you play in any dancing situations with your band?

Not at all. I’ve not even been asked. I would never play a dance, at this point—not with this band.

Do you feel that jazz, as it is today, has moved away from the dancing area?

Not at all. It’s just that I haven’t gotten into it, but there are people around who have. Johnny Hammond Smith, George Benson, for example—those people still play that kind of music, that will relate on a live basis. And, depending on what my situation would be, and how the band felt, we could do the same. If we hear ourselves properly, and if things are falling the right way, the music can be danced to—some of it, for sure.

Yes, well, as I say, there is this strong swing feeling on many things you’ve recorded—not only your own albums, but the sessions with Deodato. I think those are geared towards a kind of a ‘party audience’.

Right—it is that basic kind of thing. Attaining that live, at this particular time, is a transition that I find difficult to make consistently. Because where I’ve come from, on a live performing basis, is different in comparison to what I do usually recording–wise.

But how do you feel about the musical validity of, let’s say, something like Deodato? Do you look on it as strictly a commercial gig?

There’s a place for it. Sure, it’s very strongly commercially orientated, but still very, very musical. Yes, I do change my way of playing for that. I would try not to play what would not fit, to my ears, if possible, as well as to his ,ears. I try to acclimatise myself to the situation at hand, and try to work within that framework. I take it as a musical experience—not just a gig.

What sort of concerts do you play in the States? You do the colleges?

Colleges and concert halls. We’ve done Carnegie Hall, the Academy of Music in Philly. We did the Spectrum in Philadelphia, which is as big as Madison Square Garden. And the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, holding about twenty–four thousand people; we did it with the Doobie Brothers, during a tour with them, on which we had a great time. So when it comes down to us playing straight– ahead rock’n’roll, like on the Doobie tour—that’s all we did. We didn’t play “Spanish Moss” or “Tenth Pin” once; we kept right away from the esoteric pieces. Because we were catering to a certain kind of audience—kids, who wanted to hear the Doobie Brothers and didn’t really want to hear the opening act. But we were determined to get them to hear us—that’s why we were there, to sell records. And it turned out we sold a hundred–and–fifty thousand albums from it. That’s what it’s all about—it’s not just music; it’s also business.

Do you regard it as important to make the amount of preparations that you do for your stage act?

Sure, it’s extremely important, and we’re nowhere near where I’d like us to be. We need strong sound equipment, and people that are competent to handle it, plus good lighting people that are competent to work in collaboration with the band and the sound. It’s a matter of time; if we can last out through the natural elements that are against us, it’ll work out.

Normally, though, do you not prepare before the show starts? Only at the Rainbow more than an hour elapsed between the two parts of the programme, before you were ready to come on and play.

Now, that’s a problem that’s a technical one. It’s also a problem of poor planning on the part of promoters who put on shows. If a promoter knows that he doesn’t have a large enough stage to handle both bands, or enough people to take care of the equipment, the worst thing he can do is to accept an opening act that is as big as his star attraction, because it means that the show is not gonna move as smoothly as it could. Therefore, with that, you have a lot of problems.

Well, you’re expecting the audience to be patient while you make these preparations.

Yeah, if that’s at all possible, but many times it’s not. All we can do then is what we can, and express apologies. Because there may be politics involved, and there’s no way you can get around it. And this particular time there were a lot of politics. When I was in Montreux, again the same thing basically happened, only with three bands. There was my band, Soft Machine and Chicago Art Ensemble—all huge, and what was supposed to be a smoothly–run show turned out to be almost a disaster. For me, I felt really bad; I was really hyped up to play that show, and I ended up getting no sound check at all in the day, because there was no time. The TV people wanted their stuff to be right; so did the sound people and the radio people—the balances on each band. By the time it came around to us—and we were the stars at the show—we had to go on second, as opposed to last; which was okay with me—we were hoping to go on first, anyway. In the process, we had to take a sound check in front of a record sell–out audience—and they had already waited two hours for the change of equipment. We were recording that night, too; it was really very, very difficult. So these are the kind of things that I’ve been dealing with.

In common with many other groups, you use the electric piano. But surely you would not wish to see the conventional piano fall into disuse?

Ah—wait for a couple of months. There’s a lot of acoustic piano on the next album. I really love it. It’s my second instrument; I play it poorly, but I have a lot of respect for people who play it. It won’t be neglected—not by me, anyway. I feel that acoustic piano has definitely got a place.

By the same token, you. obviously have a feeling for the acoustic bass. That was an enjoyable feature by Alex Blake on your show. He has a novel way of counteracting the tonal limitations of the instrument—playing it as if it were a Spanish guitar.

Sure. It has no limitations, as far as I’m concerned. I consider that one of my closest friends is, to say the least, a competent bassist—and that’s Ron Carter. Or Richard Davis. They have extended the instrument to such levels, it’s really incredible. Another, of course, is Miroslav Vitous, who has done quite a bit with the instrument in other areas. I feel that an acoustic bass is a very welcome change in any electrical concert; to try to combine the two only provides for more emotion on a positive level, if conceptually projected right.

In every piece you write and play, you’d say the! scope for improvising is your main consideration?

Absolutely. It’s the major element in my writing. I don’t want to tell everybody what to play constantly. What I try to do is establish a foundation and a framework, and from there let it go,

Copyright © 1974 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.