Jazz giant Billy Cobham talks past, present and future

Billy Cobham is widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. He is especially influential in the realm of jazz fusion, a genre that combines the improvisational focus and chord structures of “classic” jazz with the rhythms and instrumentation of rock and funk. In his career that spans nearly 50 years, he has played alongside legends such as Miles Davis, Horace Silver, George Benson, the Brecker Brothers, Stanley Clarke, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and many more. He is currently touring in celebration of the 40th anniversary of his debut solo album, “Spectrum,” and played at SPACE in Evanston Oct. 3 and 4. I spoke with Cobham over the phone about working with jazz giants and the language of music.

DePaulia: The music website Allmusic.com says that you are “generally acclaimed as fusion’s greatest drummer, with an influential style that combines explosive power and exacting precision.” What do you have to say about that?

Billy Cobham: I have no comment (laughs). People write these things and I go, “Really?” This is what I do, it’s my life and it’s how I live; my life is reflected in how I play. If my music affects this particular individual in that way, so be it. That’s why we’re here; we’re all just little crystals floating around this earth.

DP: Growing up, what made you want to play the drums?

BC: I grew up in a musical house. Everyone in my house did something musical. So the reason is just because of the lifestyle – with all of that around you, and the music being played by other musicians, it’s kinda difficult not to play music. I couldn’t envision myself working in any other environment.

DP: After high school, you joined the Army and played in the Army Jazz Band. How did this experience shape you?

BC: I came in with a lack of discipline, and came out with a lot of discipline. It was either that or die (laughs). I was going to school, and they didn’t have an assignment for me yet, so I just ended up playing in the band. I was able to instruct some of the teachers there, so they knew I didn’t need to go to school. Then I ended up playing with the United States Army Band in New York. I played with musicians who were playing around New York City just to put more food on the table. Back in those days you might make $168 a month, which was not nearly enough, even in those days. So you tried to enhance your standard of living by playing with whoever you could. I worked with people like Mel Lewis, Billy Taylor, people like this, in clubs or in the studio, whatever I could do.

DP: After playing around clubs in NYC for a while, eventually in 1970 you worked on a little album called “Bitches Brew” with Miles Davis. Did you have any idea while recording that album what kind of impact it would have on jazz?

BC: With a big fat no! (laughs). I am not a person who can see into the future, I had no idea. We were just making a record; he pulled a lot of people into the studio, counted off the music and we started playing. What was really special about Miles was he was a manager of people. He could put the elements together to fit the puzzle. He did not tell you what to do, you were there because you already did it, and you could do it. He would point to you and say, “Now.” You don’t know what’s gonna happen … Some people ended up playing very little.

DP: So it was a very natural recording process?

BC: It was so natural that it was unnatural. It is unnatural to see that. It’s way out of line to see things like that happen.

DP: You’re on tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of your debut album, “Spectrum.” Are you bringing anything new to the table on this tour with regard to that album?

BC: My goal is to build on the platform of “Spectrum” by adding to it. Three of the musicians who were on the album have passed on, the rest are spread out all over creation, so there’s no sense in trying to play it the same way. What you wanna do is move on from that and use that as a springboard. I chose musicians that have worked with me over the past 40 years to realize this concept.

DP: Many songs from your huge body of work have been sampled by hip-hop and electronic artists. Do you listen to any of these songs that sample you?

BC: I haven’t listened to them. That’s an area I haven’t really delved into. I do know about them; I hear the (portion) of what they’re sampling and I say okay or no. I don’t hear the end product, except for one that was done about 20 years ago by a group called Massive Attack. It was Michael Jackson that pointed out that sample to me. He was working with my brother at the time and told me, “Hey, you should check this out, this is your stuff.” We were able to work it out though. It’s for a different generation, not me. As for the money, I’m not prosecuting (anyone who samples my songs).

DP: Having worked with such a wide range of musicians, from all different genres, what has this taught you about music, or life?

BC: Music reflects your lifestyle. It’s the only language on the planet that doesn’t lie; it will tell everybody who you are. If you can hold the interest of people who are listening to you, that means they are in tune to what you are doing. You’re telling them a story and they are complying through what is considered silence, but what is actually a very strong conversation. It’s also how you present your ideas, the frequencies that you use to present yourself, that’s very special.

DP: What future projects do you have planned right now?

BC: We’re on tour until December and working on a live recording every day when we come out. It eventually will be released in the fall of 2014. There are two other projects: one is called “Tales from the Skeleton Coast” and should be out in the beginning of January. The other is in the early mixing stage and is a recording of my songs written for a 22-piece jazz orchestra. It’s called “Extended Works” and should be out in the summer of 2014.

DP: So no slowing down for you anytime soon?

BC: No, what’s that? (laughs).