Regular readers of this blog (both of you) know I have been reviewing many old time favorites. Tonight was no exception. Seeing Billy Cobham and comparing him to others found on this site is a fascinating commentary on the huge range of how we humans age. Some artists have been barely able to stand at recent shows (BB King, Johnny Winter, Pharaoh Sanders, and Leon Russell come to mind) and their playing has deteriorated mightily.
Others occupy a middle ground such as Dr John, whom I saw one week ago. Ray Davies also fits this category. These players are illusionists. They are able to project images at various points in the show to remind the audience of their past greatness. They can give the outline of their dots to the audience who then obligingly make the connections. Such is the stuff of nostalgia.
Still others remain seemingly at the top of their game. I’d locate Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock, the Zombies, and Brian Auger here.
Then there is Billy Cobham. 69 years old and this drummer can play whatever he wants at least for 4:44 and likely much longer than that. Tonight he put on a clinic, displaying the full range of his talents at least in the jazz-rock fusion genre music I was immersed in growing up.
Cobham can bring on the thunder with double bass drums, full array of tom-toms and cymbals crashing. At times his work on the high hat reminded me of Tony Williams, another Miles Davis alum from the same era. What he can still do like nobody else is solo off a drum role, playing it tight or loose however he sees fit. And while the band spent most of the night rocking, there were enough quiet interludes to suggest Billy could accompany New Age music if he so wished.
I became a Cobham fan in the early 70’s with his work on Miles’ sound track to the movie Jack Johnson and, of course his most celebrated work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s that part of his discography which motivated me to attend tonight. So while I did not recognize any of the songs off his new Compass Point double CD, I wasn’t even a familiar with his Spectrum album of which the current band honors the 40th anniversary.The only song I recognized was Led Boots from Beck’s Wired album.
Reflecting on the amount of old and familiar music I have been attending got me to thinking about the older artist’s motivation to keep touring. Beyond the crass ego needs and retirement financial boosts, why do they do it? I mean what’s in it artistically for a group or individual to keep playing music from a youthful creative height?
And it suddenly hit me. If they don’t do it who will? Popular music is current music. Jazz and rock artists may have songs that will become classics. But for any group not named The Beatles, the bulk of the work will not endure. Most groups won’t have orchestras devoted to keeping their canon alive in two hundred years.
The audience tonight were few and hard core. I can’t remember a concert I have attended where a standing ovation was offered before a note was played and with continued standing O’s after most numbers.
Fusion Jazz is about as nichy a musical subtype as exists in music these days. This show was a chance to scratch an itch that mostly gets scratched when pulling out old CDs and LPs, yes LPs. I remember debates with friends about whether Larry Coryell was a more inventive soloist than John McLaughlin. Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of getting tribal with my people listening to my music.
Billy Cobham on drums with The Mahavishnu Orchestra (please forgive the ad intro):
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