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All That Jazz

Cobham Covers the Spectrum

March 29, 2002|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is drummer Billy Cobham a candidate for the "Whatever happened to

Why the low visibility? Primarily because he's been living in Switzerland for 23 years, appearing in Europe and virtually every part of the world far more frequently than in the U.S. Next week he performs at the Conga Room in one of his rare Southland appearances, celebrating the re-release (via a DVD-A 5.1 surround sound Rhino recording) of his 1973 album "Spectrum."

Selected best jazz album at the time by Billboard magazine, the recording--arguably one of the defining jazz fusion outings--featured an ensemble that included, in addition to Cobham, guitarist Tommy Bolin, keyboardist Jan Hammer and bassist Lee Sklar. But that's not the group that will show up at the Conga Room.

"I never actually took the band that did the original 'Spectrum' recording out on the road," Cobham says. "And, of course, it's impossible to do that now, because Tommy Bolin is dead and Jan Hammer hasn't been willing to play a live concert in 25-plus years.

"The funny thing is that I hadn't played one note together with Lee since the recording, either. He wanted me to come play with him once in the Johnny Hallyday band in France, but that never came to be. Then I ran into him in Australia in 1991 when he was with Phil Collins. And he said, 'OK, you know what I'm going to say.' And I said, 'I know, I know, we'll get together.' But it's finally happening now."

Besides Sklar, the current Spectrum group includes guitarist Dean Brown and keyboardist Gary Husband--both of whom have worked frequently with Cobham--in place of Bolin and Hammer.

Cobham, who was born in Panama in 1946 and raised in New York from the age of 3, has always been an artist with a creatively inquiring mind. Fascinated by every aspect of music, he was still in his early 20s in the late '60s when jazz, rock, blues and electronics began to coalesce into what eventually became known as jazz fusion.

One of the vanguard artists who found a way to combine these seemingly disparate elements, he performed with Miles Davis on "Bitches Brew" and other important albums, worked with the jazz-rock group Dreams and played a vital role in establishing the musical direction of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra.

By the late '70s, he had become everyone's favorite versatile drummer, capable of bringing imaginative new ideas to everything he played. But he also began to feel too many restrictions on his own creative notions.

"Working in an environment where I had to really find a way to survive made it important for me to put my nose to the grindstone and come up with some ideas," he recalls. "And every time I did that, I'd start to butt up against this rubber tree plant called the U.S.A., and I'd get knocked back.

"I couldn't really do things in the way that I wanted to, because economically it just wasn't feasible. For example, I couldn't play locations that would justify my having a band with more than two other people, plus maybe one person to set up the gear. And that just wasn't quite what I had in mind artistically, so I just thought, well, let me just try to do this someplace else."

Europe in general, and Geneva specifically, was that someplace else. And Cobham found it to be a receptive destination.

"One of the big pluses about being an American jazz artist is that, if you've had any success at all, you carry a pretty heavy torch when you leave this country. So it wasn't so tough for me to get something happening, to sustain it and to build on it. There were--and there are--major environments in Europe that love the music."

Cobham's success in establishing himself as an American jazz artist residing in the middle of a continent that loves what he does has opened up some attractive musical opportunities. A number of projects produced through Cobham's Creative Multi-Media Concepts company combine elements of art and education.

Despite the obviously superior creative opportunities that Cobham's residence in Europe has provided, he's still not ready to become a Swiss citizen, even though he has lived in the country long enough to do so.

"I don't know if I want that complication. I like my American status the way it is, so I just leave everything alone. Sometimes you need a break to take a look at what's here in America from outside the shores. There's so much goodness in this country, but the problem is how to use it, how to be positively effective, and how to understand where you fit in."

Billy Cobham and his band perform at the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., on Monday and Tuesday. Performances begin at 9:30 p.m. and consist of two 60-minute sets. (323) 938-1696.

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