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MUSIC REVIEW : Cobham’s Hex: Too Much of a Good Thing

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stellar drummer Billy Cobham came to town Thursday night and rewarded the attentiveness of several hundred fans at the Belly Up Tavern with a generous, two-hour program that featured his much-acclaimed, quadridexterous playing.

But he also prompted the one question that has dogged his career for two decades: Is the almost nonstop application of prodigious technical skill a musical end in itself?

Cobham first came to prominence as the rhythmic fulcrum in guitarist John McLaughlin’s landmark, early-'70s fusion group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Although Cobham’s hyperactive style had its detractors--some critics grumbled that he overplayed--it focused enough attention on the Panamanian-born stickman to make him the dominant percussion stylist of that decade.

Cobham pulled the drums out of the background and expanded the drummer’s role in a band from that of a mere timekeeper to that of a co-equal among lead instrumentalists. In so doing, he joined a long line of influential, high-profile players that includes Ginger Baker of the ‘60s rock group Cream, and late, Big-Band greats such as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.

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In Thursday’s concert, Cobham gave ammunition to both his critics and his idolaters. Joined by a keyboardist and a bassist in what could be described as a contemporary, electric version of the piano trio format--except that Cobham’s presence made it a drum trio--the 47-year-old drummer performed several new compositions. To say that most of these were not memorable might seem a commentary on Cobham’s talents as a composer, but actually it’s an acknowledgement that his pieces mainly serve as frameworks for rhythmic exploration and jamming.

In that regard, Cobham was, for the most part, splendid. His muscular, perpetual-motion style generates an irresistible kinetic energy. On the pieces “Kinky” and “Street Urchin,” he quickly established powerful, roiling rhythms with fast, punchy footwork on the kick drum--a Cobham trademark--and with precise stick-play that put multiple accents on the tom-toms in places where tradition-minded drummers would hit the cymbals. For sheer rhythmic indulgence, this was a treat.

But Cobham is at his best when he’s a “reactive” drummer. In the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham not only benefited in being surrounded by masterly musicians--McLaughlin, violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Jan Hammer--but he also had the advantage of playing off the fire-breathing melodic lines and angular time-changes in McLaughlin’s compositions. Cobham’s locomotive approach flourished in that context; he could let loose in the breakneck passages and provide a much-needed surge in the quieter moments.

In Thursday’s show, the Brian Bromberg composition “Sunrise” provided the only moments of structural cohesion and melodic invention, and, accordingly, Cobham’s drumming during this piece was a marvel of understated, supportive power. Cobham’s reactive skills passed another test when he instantaneously picked up on a triplet pattern played during a long solo by the keyboardist during a piece called “Permanent Jet Lag.” Taking the keyboardist’s spontaneous cue, Cobham turned what might have been a momentary, improvisational caprice into several bars of funky, off-accented jamming. The crowd hooted its approval.

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To his credit, Cobham did a lot more “listening” during this concert than he’s done in past performances. He practically sat out of a bass-dominated piece called “Laid-back Lifestyle,” and elsewhere he gave ample room to his cohorts. But Cobham still tends to dominate the music in a way that produces ear-weariness.

An illustration of how a lack of restraint in music can produce unfortunate results came late in the show. During a piece called “Mirror’s Image,” the keyboardist was rolling along in a ruminative solo when Cobham suddenly unleashed an explosive drum-and-cymbal flurry. The keyboardist kept playing, but the rhythmic outburst seemed to deflate his improvisation and nearly killed the piece’s momentum.

Cobham, who begins each day with 400 sit-ups and fights jet lag by playing racquetball, might be predisposed by an A-type personality to his aerobic style of drumming. But the unrelenting fury of his attack--even in the softer passages he is a blizzard of percussives--makes it seem that he is soloing for two hours. And a two-hour drum solo, even by someone as great as Cobham, is too much of a good thing.


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