By Eric Deggans
Times Staff Writer
It started, as most things do for musicians, with Billy Cobham trying to make sure he could get another job.
The year was 1973, and Cobham knew the world-shaking jazz fusion band he had co-founded with guitarist John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, was coming to an end. So he called up some friends — guitarist Tommy Bolin, bassist Leland Sklar, keyboardist Jan Hammer, acoustic bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Joe Farrell and a few others — spending about six hours over two days recording songs he wrote by picking out melodies, hunt-and-peck-style, on a piano.
The result, dubbed Spectrum, climbed Billboard magazine's sales charts and became one of the key records of the jazz-fusion era, as Cobham combined what he'd learned in his earlier collaborations with McLaughlin and Miles Davis into a potent new sound. Alongside seminal efforts by Davis, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Weather Report, it would inspire artists ranging from Jeff Beck and beyond.
"I thought, let me make this as sort of a calling card to get the word out (in New York's jazz scene) that 'Hey I'm here in case you need (a drummer),' " said Cobham, speaking by video chat over Skype from his home in Switzerland. "I couldn't believe that anybody would listen to my record because I'm the drummer and drummers don't make records. Then I get a call from (a record company executive) in Atlanta, who said, 'We have a problem. You need a band.' I said, 'Why would I need a band?' 'Because you got a really big record.' "
Turns out, Cobham had created an amazing calling card, establishing himself as a virtuoso drummer/bandleader/composer, the embodiment of a jazz fusion style that would blend the groove and instrumentation of rock and pop with the melodic complexity and high musicianship of jazz. He would go on to play with everyone from Carlos Santana and George Duke to the Grateful Dead and Gino Vannelli in a career spanning nearly 50 years.
The record also made stars of Bolin — who would later join the classic rock band Deep Purple before dying of a drug overdose in 1976 — and Hammer, whose guitar-like synthesizer playing would energize hits with Jeff Beck and the Miami Vice soundtrack.
"I was in a community of musicians. All you had to do was give 'em the right material and they did it themselves," he said. "That's what I learned from Miles; you don't teach people to play your material. You went and found somebody that knew how to play it before you even wrote it. And before you blink, (the recording) is over."
Which may explain why, 40 years later, Cobham has created "Billy Cobham's Spectrum 40" tour, paying tribute to his first solo record's ruby anniversary. The band features longtime session guitarist Dean Brown, Gary Husband — who played drums in British pop/funk/jazzers Level 42 for years, but will play keyboards with Cobham — and bassist Ric Fierabracci.
At age 69, the Panamanian-American drummer still looks young beyond his years, built like a linebacker and full of energy. But even though he's known for his oversize drum kits, intricate solos and flashy playing style — which sometimes involves using two drumsticks in each hand — the drummer says he's become a simpler player as he ages.
Cobham declined to blame the decline in jazz and jazz fusion on a fickle public, lack of radio play or pop-obsessed record industry. "I think it depends on the artist and the product they bring to the table; if you have nothing to offer the public you're going to lose," he said.
"Fusion represents the intelligentsia combining a real pop environment with an eccentric edge … which means, you're thinking," added Cobham, who theorized that pop music has been dumbed down to keep the masses from thinking too much. "So what I play is based on exactly what I'm feeling now. That means my mind is working; I'm being creative. And to some, I'm probably being dangerous."