Billy Cobham's "Palindrome"

Perhaps the most incredible drummer of our time is the world renown Billy Cobham. With a career spanning 4 decades, Cobham has performed with pianists Horace Silver and George Duke, legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, vibraphonist Milt Holland and jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, to name but a few. Cobham has also performed with the Grateful Dead and their tribute group, "Jazz is Dead", with the famed Peter Gabriel, Level 42 and many, many more. An inductee into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, Cobham is best known primarily for his jazz-rock drumming. Cobham’s latest release, “Palindrome” on the Multimedia Concepts label, is a return to those roots.

Percussionist, writer and educator Reid J. Kennedy reviewed Palindrome last January for the Jazz Police. It so closely echoed my own view of this album, that it bears quoting here. Kennedy writes, “The album opens with an updated arrangement of Cobham’s “Moon Germs,” originally released in 1975 on the Total Eclipse record. With its funky bassline, solid pocket, and tight horn lines, this track is a suitable microcosm for a majority of the album. “Moon Germs’” use of guitar and keyboard riffs is another common thread within Cobham’s arrangements. “Two For Juan,” revisited from 1987’s Picture This, opens with a driving theme played over the drummer’s relentless backbeat. The combination of instrumentation and melodic material produce a theme suitable for an action sequence on Miami Vice.

The tune takes a different direction as keyboardist Christophe Cravero and trombonist Marshall Gilkes take turns blowing over an interlude prior to the return of the initial groove and guitar solo. A mountain climb toward the original theme ensues, not complete without some space for Cobham. “Obliquely Speaking” is one of five new compositions on the album, though it bares multiple similarities to “Two For Juan.” The use of steel pan adds a tropical flavor to this track.

By the fourth tune, “Isle of Skye,” the ensemble sound is firmly in place. Listeners know what to expect at this point, and those in search of groove-oriented music with a Latin tinge will not be disappointed. This second new composition on Palindrome offers a few calming moments when the music breathes a relaxing sigh. “A Day’s Grace,” from 1981’s Flight Time, begins softly before giving way to the straight-eight feel that propels the tune. Guitar, keyboard, and violin all receive solo space before the melody returns. Percussionist Marco Lobo adds some tasteful rhythms to the conclusion. Riff-based “Mirage” is reminiscent of the Dave Weckl Band with shades of Dave Holland with Billy Kilson, and even recordings of Michel Camilo. It was originally recorded on the Focused album in 1997.

A close listen to “Cancun Market” reveals the level of intricacy that encompasses many of the melodies Cobham composes. Nearly two minutes of syncopated rhythms comprise the head and give way to a steel pan solo played by Wilbert “Junior” Gill from Cobham’s “Culturemix” band. Guitar and keyboard solos follow thereafter, prior to the head out. “Torpedo Flo” is in six and morphs through a variety of grooves and feels in that time signature.

Trombonist Gilkes returns for a tasteful ride over Cobham’s relaxed, pseudo-samba feel that continues during the keyboard solo, as well. “Alfa Waves,” originally from 1995’s The Traveler, is a samba in three and features the “string” section of the group. Bassist Philippe Chayeb, who is solid throughout the entire album, opens the blowing and is followed by violin and guitar solos. It should be noted that the violin parts are played by keyboardist Cravero. Interestingly, this tune is placed directly after the only other tune in three (or six) on the record. “Saippuakivikauppias,” the palindrome song, concludes the album. The catch here is that, like the title, the tune is the same forward and backward.”

All in all, Palindrome is a softer Cobham album and as Kennedy noted, many of the songs are from Cobham’s thirty year catalogue. I recognized many of the strains from Cobham’s earlier albums, particularly “Total Eclipse”, “Life and Times” and “Inner Conflicts”. For me, Palindrome combines all of the elements of Cobham’s rich musical past, from the ‘70s era of the Brecker Brothers to the Culturemix band of 2003 with Junior Gill.

Kennedy rightly concluded, “Cobham’s Palindrome looks into the past while moving forward with contemporary ideas. There is no denying the drummer’s ability to play in the pocket, and with this release, he has made clear his musical preferences as they stand in 2010.”