February 20, 2012 3:50 am

Billy Cobham, Ronnie Scott’s, London

The great jazz drummer gave a masterclass that matched technique with musicality

The perfectly timed, stubby press roll with which Billy Cobham nonchalantly introduced his opening set signalled a master at work. And as his double bass drum grumbled and his cymbals pinged, and hard-nosed beats switched to a jaunty calypso lilt, it was clear that Cobham’s power and precision remain intact.

Throughout the 1970s, Cobham’s blitzkrieg technique, immaculate timing and fine-tuned sound made him the benchmark drummer of fusion jazz. In his hands the raw harmonies and metronomic rhythms of rock were delivered with a technically assured power that swept all before it, and was all the more effective for being spiced by jazz tensions and subtleties.

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Not that much has changed since then, and the Cobham aesthetic remains solidly locked into the grammar of fusion jazz. Themes are intricate, episodic and marked by precision timing. Swirling keyboards conjure the mysteries of the deep and are called to order by ferocious unison lines; grooves change as if by deep-seated command; riff-driven breaks erupt with enormous energy.

With so many changes, the first-set themes seemed to melt into one long showcase for a well-drilled band. The second number, translated from the Spanish as “Get Out If You Can”, referenced Cobham’s infancy in a tough area of Panama City – later raised in New York, he now lives in Switzerland. Late-night menace switched to a playful Latin mood, there were powerhouse climaxes and long-drawn fugues, and super-fast breaks that, once completed, left the band smiling grimly with relief.

It took an old favourite, “Stratus”, to relax the largely French band’s muscular musicianship and to deliver more than well-drilled technique and moments of flash. Christophe Cravero on electric piano and Camelia Ben Naceur on synths found a warmer keyboard palette, the jiggly lines from bass guitar sat more easily on the pulse and the rhythmic subtleties of Junior Gill’s steel pans shimmered vibrantly.

There were also solos of note – Naceur’s bendy synth and jazzy piano; Cravero’s flowing lines and mournful arabesque on amplified violin – and time to appreciate just how good Cobham still sounds. Centre-stage and orchestrating the tricky bits with finesse, his whisper-to-thunder solos were highlights that matched technique with musicality.

4 stars

www.billycobham.com

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