Billy Cobham in concert in Milan this year
Billy Cobham in concert in Milan this year © Charlie Bibby

Billy Cobham was the first drummer to combine jazz, funk and rock into a style that never abandoned itself to blandness. To this day no drummer matches his ability to blend rock power with funk groove, and jazz finesse with technical precision.

Cobham, 69, played on pivotal Miles Davis recordings marking the trumpeter’s turn to amplified jazz – Bitches Brew and Tribute to Jack Johnson stand out – and, alongside John McLaughlin, co-founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971. In 1973, he became one of the few drummers to lead a band into the Billboard top fifty, with Spectrum, his debut own-name album.

This jazz fusion innovator brings his quintet to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on May 4, two weeks before he turns 70. Cobham has been on the road marking the 40th anniversary of Spectrum and, when we met in London recently, he recalled the heightened emotions that drove the making of the album.

“I was being fired [from the Mahavishnu Orchestra],” he said. Cobham recorded Spectrum in three days: it was the first time he had composed an album’s worth of material. The album’s mix of rock raunch and jazz chops topped the Billboard Jazz Album charts and reached number 26 in the overall top 200, a success that surprised both record company and Cobham. Suddenly, his label called, telling him: “You need a band. Don’t panic.”

Yet after recording that now legendary first album, he was criticised for being too upfront. “Drummers need to know their place,” he recalls being told. “I went, ‘No, this is me. Like it or lump it.’” They liked it. Cobham went on to make a string of albums under his own name, becoming synonymous with megawatt fusion jazz.

Cobham’s drumming is stadium-filling and technically immense but he is much more than a superb craftsman. His innovations in drum technique and rhythm compressed his formative influences into a whole new approach to drums.

He was born in Colón, Panama, but was raised in Brooklyn, New York, after his parents moved there when he was three. His father, a hospital statistician, played piano at weekends, boosting his tips by inviting singers from the audience to join him. The young Cobham tagged along, and got an early lesson in music business economics. “He could make a hundred bucks for making someone look good,” said Cobham, recalling that the average black family in the US lived on about $40 a week then.

Cobham started playing drums when he was four, joined the local marching band and played his first gig, accompanying his father, when he was eight. His parents bought him his first drum kit when he was 14, a present for passing the audition for New York’s High School of Music and Art. Cobham said he once bumped into legendary drummer Buddy Rich in a club and asked him to sign the snare but Rich “dropped it down the stairs”.

In 1965, the by then busy drummer passed another life-changing test when he was drafted into the army, playing in the army band. “Either I joined the band or I joined the army with a rifle,” said Cobham. He ended up stationed 10 miles from his house, playing for the men leaving in the ships going to war. Cobham credits his three years of military service as enduringly valuable. “I got the organisation dimension, putting things and people together, writing, playing.” Among the contacts he made was saxophonist Grover Washington.

Billy Cobham in London
In London © Corbis

Cobham left the army in 1968, and soon joined pianist Horace Silver’s quintet. It was at this time that the drum manufacturer Tama gave him a prototype electric drum kit. “Max Roach had a set,” he recalled. “Jack DeJohnette had a set and Tony (Williams) got a set.” By then, his trademark brittle march, silky swing and powerhouse groove was falling into place and he was at the heart of the rhythmic upheavals that shaped jazz in the late 1960s. “My experiences as a musician, the military bands, the funk,” he said, characterising his style. “It’s all in there.”

This was an exceptionally busy period of Cobham’s life, even by his standards. He was a studio regular for Atlantic, and a high-profile session drummer for the CTI and Kudu labels – Grover Washington’s first album Soul Box, Milt Jackson’s Sunflower and George Benson’s White Rabbit are among a slew of landmark releases he recorded for those labels. He co-founded the band Dreams with Mike and Randy Brecker and was invited to tour, as well as to record, with Miles Davis.

But, by the 1980s, music in America was getting tighter. “There were too many geniuses,” he said. “Everybody was just killing each other fighting for the same turf.” In 1985, Cobham moved to Switzerland, where he lives in a village just outside Bern. Yet he is so busy that he recently took a place near the Panamanian capital Panama City to facilitate his intercontinental comings and goings. “It’s close to the airport, and you get a chance to take a walk along the beach and take it easy,” he said.

As well as the Spectrum band he formed in the 1990s, Cobham is continuing the “Art of Jazz” series he launched in 2001 with a big band retrospective in collaboration with UK trumpeter/arranger Guy Barker. And he’s just released Tales of the Skeleton Coast, an atmospheric set of originals inspired by the shifting sands and sense of mystery and peril that imbue that stretch of the Namibian coast.

All of this comes together in the power, precision and intricacies of the Billy Cobham band. The quintet of UK and French musicians reference the occasional past glory but most songs are fresh-minted and all the arrangements are new. Alongside Cobham’s masterclass in drumming, there is the glistening sound of Junior Gill’s steel pans as a lead voice.

The Billy Cobham band play at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on May 4 and then tour Europe,

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