Two elderly gentlemen enter the hotel in downtown Sofia together, while talking music. Both of them are expats. The guy on the left, Milcho Leviev, the legendary Bulgarian composer, arranger and pianist, will be celebrating his 79th birthday soon. The other gentleman, William Emanuel “Billy” Cobham, takes Milcho to his room, since he is very tired, understandably, after a day of music workshops at New Bulgarian University (NBU). Leviev fled Bulgaria in 1970, spent years in American exile, and now lives in Thessaloniki with his wife, vocalist Vicky Almazidu.
I met Bill Cobham before, some ten years ago, right here in Sofia, when I co-organized Sofia Jazz Peak, a big Jazz, Soul and Funk festival, which basically ceased to exist in 2008. Now Bill is back, hyper-active as always, at age 72, while looking like 42.
For those who are not familiar: Bill Cobham isn’t just the most brilliant drummer ever, but he embodies drumming. Born in Panama City, he moved to New York City with his parents at a very young age and started performing in 1965, with the U.S. Army Band. Soon, he would move over to pianist Horace Silver’s act. “Horace always knew what he wanted”, says Cobham, the perfectionist, sitting on a Sofa in his Sofia hotel suite. “I learned a lot from him.”
After playing with virtually everyone in the U.S. Jazz world of the 1960s, including Miles Davis and a young George Benson, he moved towards Fusion. His first stop on that path: An act called Dreams, which included Michael and Randy Brecker. “That one was just a job”, he says. Very soon, Bill Cobham would become one of the most important pioneers of the Fusion genre. A cooperation with John McLaughlin included the legendary “Love Devotion Surrender” album, by both McLaughlin and Carlos Santana. Also, Cobham co-founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of the most important Fusion groups ever. “Not everyone can play that stuff”, he accurately states, 40 years later, on this Sofia Sofa.
My question whether performers might have exaggerated during the Fusion era, by delivering music which could be regarded as too complicated to comprehend, for many, gets an interesting answer: “There had to be some intellectual sounds.” The latter he has definitely delivered, on countless solo albums. He started releasing those in 1973, with “Spectrum”, an album regarded as the Bible of all Fusion albums.
In 1978 and 79, a short Jazz-Funk phase became obvious. “Hip Pockets”, “Mendocino” and similar tunes were a clear indication for the latter. While Cobham likes Funk, “the Latin influence was always stronger”, which indeed is audible on a large majority of his tracks, from “Spectrum” all the way to recent eclectic projects with very strong Latin tendencies.
The Bulgarian genius he will now be playing with, on September 16th at 9:00 p.m., at Sofia Live Club, Milcho Leviev, already was on Cobham’s albums “Total Eclipse” and “Shabazz”, recorded in 1974 and 75, respectively. Leviev even contributed compositions. Students from the NBU master classes they are giving right now, as we speak, will be on stage as well.
Bill Cobham is not only the most brilliant drummer ever, but also a fellow expat. For several decades, he has lived in Switzerland, “the best place for not doing anything”. But now, he and his Russian wife Faina own a place in Panama City, which is where they spend most of their free time. That kind of quality time, which Cobham has not had much in decades, is increasing. At age 72, he his touring less, even though he seems like he is ready to start a new world tour right now. Of course he can not be “an expat like you and me”, since he toured so much that he met himself at Heathrow, Narita and J.F.K. Airport. So, he was hardly living the kind of expat life most of us do.
By Imanuel Marcus
The full conversation with Billy Cobham will be released on a specialized website soon.