Monday, March 30, 2009

Billy Cobham George Duke Band: A Concert I'd like to Tell You About

In actuality, it is never quite that easy to describe a concert experience to someone not in attendance of any musical genre. Yes, we’re all familiar with what the basic rock concert is like, or what actions some notorious live groups take on stage, like Led Zeppelin for example. But imagine you have never heard of Led Zeppelin or even rock and roll. After your first Zeppelin concert, using simple words to describe the magnitude of what you have seen to someone who has not seen it would be, frankly, impossible.

I use this Zeppelin analogy as a way to describe my task to you, the reader. The music of the Billy Cobham / George Duke Band was so unique and also somewhat short lived that few people even with a jazz consciousness are familiar with it. Furthermore, their musical style, if given a name, is fusion. The very name, fusion (typically meaning a fusion of jazz and rock), though useful in trying to group a time period of jazz neatly into the history books, inadequately describes the dramatically different music that separate musicians played. If one compares the central ideas inherent in Bitches Brew, to the recordings of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and those of Weather Report, all three beacons of jazz ‘fusion’ as we know it, one would find three very different ideologies of style. I know I do.

Hopefully that serves as a proper introduction to the Billy Cobham / George Duke Band concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival of 1976. Let fusion be the term that describes their music, but until you hear it for yourself, attempt to have no predisposition of what it will resemble. The group’s line-up was a perfect quartet of masterful players who all made a name for themselves playing with anyone but the band that appeared at Montreux. Cobham, co-leader and drummer, had played with Miles Davis on the album Live-Evil, and at this point in ’76, had already co-founded and toured extensively with John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra. George Duke, the other co-leader and keyboardist, was already known for being a constant collaborator with Frank Zappa and had also played with the likes of Cannonball Adderley and bassist Stanley Clarke. The other half of the quartet unnamed in its title is Alphonso Johnson of Weather Report fame on bass, and John Scofield, on guitar, a young and budding jazz fusionist who would go on to achieve his own considerable solo fame.

Amazing how just a quartet could seem like a veritable who’s who of jazz fusion at this mid ‘70s period. However, with all these various influences thrown into the blender together, the result in Montreux is a unique, high-energy display of groove-oriented musicians who understand the collectivity of small ensemble playing and throw in a touch of atmospheric whimsicality (particularly on the song “Almustafa the Beloved”, which features a sampled oral interpretation by Chapman Stick and vocals by Duke and Johnson). On tracks like “Juicy” and “Hip Pockets,” a relentless groove is laid down as a foundation by not just the combination of Cobham and Johnson, but the melodic instruments of keyboard and guitar, who dance effortlessly into perfectly timed phrases, mixed with sections of tension building, time-keeping rhythm that set up intervals of improvisational explosions. Johnson even manages to dance among his own groove, providing improvised fills up and down the bass neck with record speed. However, the driver of the group is unquestionably Cobham himself, whose technical prowess over his elaborate drum-set fills, transitions between grooves, and begins or ends songs, giving the group an essential piece of its unique sound that undoubtedly brings to mind funk, blues, and rock simultaneously.

But this unique sound is by no means complete without a contribution by each member of the band, creating a truly collective quartet where each musician is truly dependent on the other three to give context to his creativity. This is what is so special about the group: their insistent cooperation. Each player understands his role perfectly, where and when to stand out, and when to fit back into the ensemble, always building for another epic release that may feature one musician, or them all. It is truly a perfect example of the term “jam” as it describes group improvisation alone (and not the subsequent culture that has become synonymous with it contemporarily in America).

Both Duke and Scofield’s playing can constantly go back and forth between melody and rhythm, as the group switches grooves several times within songs, creating tunes that are multi-faceted and intriguing. And when any one member of the group has paid his dues on the rhythm side of the ensemble, they are all capable of slicing in with either a well-timed riff on keyboard, short improvisation of bass, tasteful drum fill, or a brief, but screaming guitar entry. All told, a constant cycle is repeated that fluctuates between the sum of the whole group musical organism and its featured partitions.

But there are no more words that can go further in describing the music of Billy Cobham / George Duke Band, at least not that I can produce. I could write pages and pages on each tune from this epic concert, but the music undoubtedly must be heard by the individual to be understood. And thanks to the magic of, anyone with internet access may view the majority of the concert with a simple search. I encourage you to do so. This concert is one of my own personal favorites, and that’s why I recommend it so strongly. One can spend a lifetime with jazz and still discover a new group or performance that has completely mastered its own unique approach. Enjoy.

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