Jazz/fusion drummer Billy Cobham.
Photo by Billy Cobham.
In the history of modern drumming, few virtuosos qualify as household names to musicians in general and even drummers in particular.
Rock music propelled the likes of Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. But American jazz emerged decades earlier, spawning icons like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Max Roach, Louie Bellson and Elvin Jones.
Jazz/fusion, the mix of acoustic jazz with electric rock, started in the late 1960s. Two drummers emerged, each from bands led by trumpeter Miles Davis: Tony Williams and Billy Cobham.
Now 78 years old, Cobham is the only living member of those elites. He brings his Crosswinds Project, celebrating his second solo album from 1974, to South Florida on Oct. 14 and 15. It’s a tour that actually started in 2018, extended into 2019-2020 to celebrate his 75th birthday, then was delayed by COVID-19.
“We’ll finally get through this tour,” Cobham says by phone from Switzerland, his home since the mid-1980s. “I’ll be playing with guitarist Mark Whitfield, keyboardist Scott Tibbs and my old friend Tim Landers on bass.”
Landers has worked with Cobham since the early 1980s; Tibbs and Whitfield are more recent additions. They’ll re-create “Crosswinds” classics such as “Spanish Moss — A Sound Portrait,” “The Pleasant Pheasant” and “Storm.”
Williams and Cobham created storms in the early days of fusion. Williams was Davis’ drummer through the 1960s, segueing from the trumpeter’s traditional jazz to fusion catalogs. Cobham’s tenure with Davis started with 1970 fusion staples “Bitches Brew” and “A Tribute to Jack Johnson.”
But Williams (1945-1997), who led his influential Lifetime bands afterward, was a comet, dying of a heart attack after gallbladder surgery at age 51. Cobham became an everlasting star, especially after he and Davis’ British guitarist, John McLaughlin, formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971.
For an original lineup that lasted only three years, Mahavishnu made an outsized impact as the most mercurial fusion band ever. Keyboardist Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman and bassist Rick Laird were spectacular, but the group’s primary flame involved Cobham matching the hyperkinetic McLaughlin beat for note with the intensity of a fighter pilot.
Cobham became best known for that frenetic style, achieved on massive drum sets. Fewer fans realize that he also recorded the 1998 debut album with the all-star fusion Grateful Dead cover quartet Jazz Is Dead and appears on less complex recordings by popular music stars James Brown, Carly Simon and Peter Gabriel.
“I loved playing with JB,” Cobham says, “but I knew I couldn’t drop in with him what I’d play with Mahavishnu. I play to fit the mold, and then I play what I’ve been influenced by.”
Born in Panama, Cobham moved to Brooklyn with his family as a child. He was drafted into the Army in 1965 and played in a military band. The ambidextrous drummer’s precision recalls that influence. He’s also one of the few who compare to Rich in terms of speed, and his use of double kick drums was inspired by Bellson.
“I always thought Louie and Buddy had a flow,” Cobham says, “that covered all bases around the drum set. They had a very fluid way of playing, and I got a lot out of that approach.”
Still playing with age-defying speed and intensity on drum sets only slightly smaller than his Mahavishnu monoliths, Cobham nonetheless realizes there’s a countdown. But it will come only after his 50th anniversary tour to celebrate “Spectrum,” his pioneering solo debut album from 1973.
“I had a left hip replacement in February of 2021,” he says. “I was supposed to have both replaced, but I decided to hold off on the right until age 80.” He says the “Spectrum 50” world tour starts May 16, 2023, his 80th birthday, and will hit all seven continents. Some shows will use a 22-piece band, and some will have a full 60-piece orchestra.
Billy Cobham’s Crosswinds Project plays 6 and 9 p.m. shows Oct. 14 and 15 at the Funky Biscuit, 303 S.E. Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton (561-395-2929). Tickets are $55 to $75. For further information, visit funkybiscuit.com.