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Fusion by Design

[whitespace] Jazz drummer Billy Cobham soars on two reissues: 'Picture This' and 'By Design'

By Nicky Baxter

The jazz-fusion era produced three great drummers: Lenny White, who played with Return to Forever; Alphonse Mouzon, who worked with Weather Report; and Billy Cobham. Of the three, the Panamanian-born Cobham is without question the most fearsome. Cobham has fashioned a unique style that combines the brain-melting power of hard-rock rhythm keepers with the agility of jazz men: imagine Led Zeppelin's John Bonham, the Who's Keith Moon and Elvin Jones all rolled into a singularly gifted musician.

The drummer's first claim to fame came with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew, the pivotal late-'60s jazz-rock fusion statement. Whaling away in that seemingly chaotic, churning soup rich with shifting harmonic and rhythmic impulses, the youthful Cobham acquitted himself well.

That album was followed by his explosive high-energy romps as a member of John McLaughlin's Mahuvishnu Orchestra. Unfortunately, the group's stunning technique would eventually deteriorate into sonic overkill--and the drummer was as guilty as anyone else.

Over time, Billy Cobham has discovered how to harness his notoriously massive ego in service of the music, as his playing on Picture This and By Design, both released in the late 1980s and now re-released on Purple Eagle label.

Picture This boasts some of the drummer's most musical statements to date. "Two for Juan," for instance, is as much a showcase for keyboardists George Duke and Tom Scott as it is for Cobham. While the Duke/Scott tandem soars on dazzling flights of fancy, Cobham is content to accent the beat, only occasionally peeling off his trademark power tom-tom/snare-drum fills.

On Anita Baker's sultry pop hit "Same Ole Love," Cobham again allows the music to take shape without undue interference. Grover Washington's silken saxophone blows the verses, while the keyboards chime the tune's choruses. Cobham's subtle use of high-hat cymbals and modest in-the-pocket backbeat serves to enhance the midtempo groove. Conga player Sa Davis' adds a nice Latin touch toward the tune's conclusion.

Covering Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" was questionable even when the original was popular; a decade later, it sounds like a trivial pursuit of a pop "hipness." The original tune was rather skimpy, musically, so it's no real surprise that neither Cobham's sturdy playing, nor Grover Washington's performance, as spirited as it is, can salvage the remake.

"The Juggler" is more successful. The tune finds Cobham indulging in his fondness for computer-driven percussion. New Age with a backbone, "The Juggler" is sparsely arranged and boasts some well-executed Euro-classical passages. The interplay between soprano sax and keyboards underscore rhythmically compelling theme.

Design Shop

Recorded a few years after Picture This, By Design is arguably more challenging. The album boasts more than a few highlights, but "Panama," "Serengetti Plains" and "Dream" are perhaps the most satisfying.

"Panama" is fairly representative of Cobham's flair for cool, breezy tropicalia. Featuring Ernie Watts' tensile saxophone and Joe Chindamo's synthesizers and piano, the tune is animated less by flashy theatrics than by sympathetic interlocking of roles. Keyboards and sax articulate the tune's melodic line, then trade brief solos, never straying too far from the song's melody. Cobham's stickwork here as everywhere else is tautly disciplined.

"Serengetti Plains" deftly avoids the jungle boogie connoted by its title, evoking instead images of the blue-green brilliance of Brazilian and Caribbean waters. Cobham's crisp licks and Brian Bromberg's acoustic bass smooth the way for Joe Chindamo's energetic, jazzy comping. Cobham's terse solo brings the roiling tom-toms to the fore, but he dips back into the mix so quickly you're hardly aware he took the spotlight at all.

Authored by percussionist extraordinare Sheila Escovedo, "Dream" is characterized by tricky stop-time signatures, sizzling percussion and deft horn and keyboards arrangements. Escovedo and Cobham work well together, trading quick solos so seamlessly, one wonders why they don't perform together more often. Cobham's rock-steady Brazilian-flavored stickwork during the long fadeout is truly inspired.

Taken together, these two discs prove that Cobham has discovered that pyrotechnics can sometimes get in the way of making music. Doubtless, his global jaunts (he has visited Brazil and the Caribbean on several occasions) have helped him tremendously in the discovery that sometimes less is more.

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Web extra to the June 10-16, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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