Billy Cobham’s Crosswinds Project, March 28, 2018: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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Shank Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Billy Cobham was the drummer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Say no more; I’m convinced. But wait — before this, he toured with Miles Davis and played on the Bitches Brew and Tribute to Jack Johnson albums. Now 72, Cobham is respected for his incalculable influence on both jazz and rock — from his remarkable technique to the logistics of his drum set. He is an important drummer, and one that I had never seen perform.

The present tour is billed as a remembrance of Cobham’s 1974 Crosswinds record. Selections from his first LP, Spectrum, were also slated to be played, plus a couple of new tunes. At his recent Milwaukee date, Billy Cobham was personable and seemed to be having a good time. He came out from behind his drum set several times to stand center stage and discuss his music, but kept the remarks brief. He also apologized that he had not been to Milwaukee in 23 years.

I wasn’t sure how well Cobham would draw, especially on a Wednesday night. Perhaps it was because he had been away so long, but the club was filled with several hundred fans. I arrived early and sat at a high table near the sound board. The sight lines were good, as was the audio mix. Am I racist to also note that the room had far more African Americans in attendance than most Shank Hall gigs? And am I sexist in observing that very few females were present? Although more difficult to discern than race or gender, I am also quite sure that there was a high percentage of drummers in the audience. At my table, alone, there were two.

The backing quartet came on stage and quickly set up. In fact, I thought they might do a tune without Cobham — an old show biz trick of star anticipation — but they didn’t. The leader strode to his drum set, counted to four, and they began. Interesting band: electric keyboards, with a lot of Roland piano, played by Scott Tibbs; Tim Landers was on a five-string electric bass, and there was a seated electric guitarist by the name of Fareed Haque. The presence of Paul Hanson’s bassoon seemed to confuse some audience members, but this was no gimmick. Except for an occasional soprano saxophone solo, Hanson played the bassoon during the entire set.

After a double dose from the Crosswinds LP — the title tune followed by “The Pleasant Pheasant” — Billy Cobham greeted the audience and explained the night’s musical focus. The quintet next played “Spanish Moss,” Crosswinds’ “sound portrait” that ran just under 30 minutes. Each of its four movements featured a different musician. Haque switched to classical guitar for his segment, and then — on the “Storm” movement — Cobham took his first unaccompanied drum solo. Even before this showcase, he was brilliant. I found myself watching him constantly, no matter who was soloing.

Following the three Crosswinds numbers, Billy Cobham introduced a new piece, “Under the Bowbuck Tree.” It was here that the keyboardist and bassoonist held their most interesting and prolonged musical conversation of the evening. The distinctive sound of Tibbs’ piano conjured aural memories of Chick Corea’s electric Rhodes work. Tibbs’ small rack of synthesizers also seemed to purposefully replicate the sounds of the 1970s, with wavering notes produced by the keyboard’s pitch-bend wheel.

Hanson’s bassoon was played through a synthesizer for this exchange, making it sometimes sound like an EWI and, at other times, like a keyboard. As these two musicians jousted, one had to look closely to determine who was playing which lines. The un-augmented sound of the bassoon was used for the concert’s other new piece, “On the Move.” This hot number included lots of tempo shifts and plenty of flange-work from bassist Landers.

The new numbers were interspersed with two favorites from the leader’s solo career — “Turian Matador” and “Stratus.” Billy Cobham’s final unaccompanied feature began with his bare hands softly striking the drum heads, before picking up the sticks. Both of his major solos were thoughtful; neither was self-indulgence nor bombastic. Cobham seemed interested in performing for the people who came to hear him, and not simply for himself. I have found that audience awareness is not always a motivating factor for percussion soloists.

Fans and bandmates alike were treated with respect by Billy Cobham. He often smiled during others’ solos and even shouted encouragement to his sidemen. With this current line-up only a few dates into the tour, the bandleader acted as conductor for some of the longer pieces’ more intricate passages. This too was interesting to observe.

Cobham returned to center stage to thank the audience for attending and for their continued support. The night ended with “Cap Brenton,” from his 2014 release Tales from the Skeleton Coast, followed by an early favorite, the slow groove of “Red Baron.” Both were warmly received, but the audience would have welcomed one final scorcher for a closer — say, “Quadrant 4.” This is a minor complaint; Cobham played 100 minutes and did not disappoint. He was the consummate musician — generous toward his band and appreciative of his audience.

After the show, I watched Billy Cobham sign album covers and patiently speak with his fans. One pleaded: “Don’t wait another 23 years to come back to Milwaukee!” Cobham laughed: “Hey, man — I don’t plan to be on the road 23 years from now!” Made me glad I caught him while I could.

Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Tom Wilmeth
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