Upon recollection of the events that took place in the small Market Square in the beautiful city of Krakow, Poland, quite recently, I came to another quite fascinating realization; that drummer Billy Cobham has grown, yet again, into another kind of musical inspiration for me.
Billy Cobham began inspiring me as a drummer, and as a musician, in 1974 when I first heard him with The Mahavishnu
Orchestra on the Inner Mounting Flame LP (this was released in 1971, the year I began playing). I actually heard the Visions of the Emerald Beyond LP first, even though it was the 3rd or 4th LP released by that very legendary group, led by guitarist John MacLaughlin. My early days of contact with the LPs of The Mahavishnu Orchestra consisted of constant listening, and playing along with the songs. My goal was to learn every note I could, and play the drum parts correctly. A specific point would be that Billy Cobham brought to the forefront of drum set drumming the use of the “Paraddidle Beat” as a staple in what we now know as Fusion. And pioneered the use of paraddidles and their variations, as patterns to create odd meter grooves on the drum set (something that I took to heart).
I also choose to learn how to sing the melodies (mostly Violin and Guitar) and bass lines, as close to what I heard being played as was possible. After some years I even began playing along with The Inner Mounting Flame tracks at 45 rpm… as opposed to the normal 33 1/3 rpm… seemingly unbelievable but true.
I first saw Billy Cobham live at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan in the mid to late 70s, I don’t remember which band it was with, but I do remember a moment when Billy went to ride his high mounted China Cymbal, and a roadie had to come on stage to hold the cymbal stand for him… it was as if the intensity was simply too much for the poor cymbal stand… or at least that’s what it seemed like to me at the time… awesome!
I do believe that my contact with those records changed and shaped me into the musician that I am today, and I must thank Jonh MacLaughlin, Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden for all of that inspiration, both technically and musically, and for their commitment to excellence.
That recent Saturday night was an unreal surprise for me as I found out, just as they were going on stage, that Billy Cobham was playing not only in Poland, where I now live, but my in own city of Krakow… and only a few meters from where I was standing at the time… this seemed completely impossible to me. I of course ran across the Main Square where there was a folk festival in progress (also with very nice music) and made my way to the small Market Square just in time to see and hear some of the first song… and there was Billy Cobham himself on a wonderful spacious stage with a very nice drum riser, playing his 7 tom, double bass drum set up… genius! I stayed to the side of the stage behind the speakers to see him better… I did not hear the amplified sound of the group at this point.
At a momentary break in the action I moved to the other side of the stage where I was ushered into the back stage area at the foot of the drum riser itself (it’s always nice to be recognized), and discovered that each musician, including Billy, had a double sized music stand with long sheets of music on them… for each song. I found out later that the band had only a short rehearsal for the show earlier that same day.
After a couple of songs of my focusing on Billy’s playing (which was awesome), a song in 7/8 came on, not one that I knew, but a very cool piece. I noticed that the bass player was leading the groove to set up the upcoming melody, and that the four piece band sounded a bit stiff at this point as there was really not much groove or communication happening between them.
The bass line seemed to be written, was quite syncopated and in 7/8. The bass players lack of familiarity with the part was obvious… and then I watched how Billy handled this situation. I have been in similar situations many times as a side-man drummer, where a member of the band has trouble keeping the spirit of the music at hand alive due to his or her desire to be „correct” rather than play music for the music’s sake. In this case I saw and heard an example of truly gracious and mature musicianship.
Billy Cobham gently relaxed the groove while playing some snare hits in the places that made the bass line more understandable. He allowed his playing to swing just enough to show the other players where the spirit of the groove should „be” and kept that going until the bass player slowly realized where he should sit in the time. Billy brought his volume down a touch and generally made even more „space” for the other players.
The point for me was HOW Billy did this, both musically and emotionally. His „vibe” was so peaceful and honest that I could tell that the bass player felt supported, not corrected… this was a wonderful moment for me as a listener and a musician to see in action.
I remember thinking to myself „this is how to play as a Gentleman”, to retain the „vibe” of the group while making the music „right”… what a wise and respectful way this is. As I said, Billy was yet again a wonderful inspiration to me, as he always has been, but in a way that I could not have experienced from listening alone. I had to actually see the interaction between him and his fellow musicians. This was indeed the Gentleman’s approach to letting the music, not the musician, speak loudly.
I was privileged enough to see this from only a few meters away from Billy’s drum riser, on the floor tom side of his set up that evening, the first time I had seen Billy Cobham live in over 30 years. After the show I had a short moment with this master musician, in which I thanked him for so many years of passion and inspiration, he was kind and communicative… and a true Gentleman.