LIVE: Billy Cobham’s Crosswinds Project @ The Egg, 3/25/18
Who doesn’t want to re-live high school? I don’t mean the cliques, the bullying, the eternal fumbling that went with taking your hormones out for a test drive, or the creeping suspicion that the entire world (secretly led by your parents) was out to frustrate you at every turn; no, I mean the music, that one safe haven you could retreat to even as those self-same parents demanded you “TURN THAT NOISE DOWN!” Classic Rock stations have been living off that nostalgic need for decades now, and the jazz version of that yearning came to Greater Nippertown on Sunday, March 25, when fusion icon Billy Cobham brought his Crosswinds Project to The Egg’s Swyer Theatre.
Released in 1974, Crosswinds was Cobham’s second album as a leader. By that time, he’d made his bones playing drums on Miles Davis’ mammoth recordings Bitches Brew and Tribute to Jack Johnson, and had carved a place in the fusion hierarchy when he formed Mahavishnu Orchestra with with fellow Miles alum John McLaughlin. Given that Cobham’s 1973 solo debut Spectrum made a much bigger impact from a sales standpoint, Crosswinds seems like a weird choice for a showcase tour, but Cobham made it clear to us that this was just one stop on the musical journey he’d been taking over a 55-year period – a career he’d be detailing in a book to be published later this year. Towards the end of the show, the extremely talkative drummer said he’d send the first chapter to whoever provided their email address. “This is how you sell books, they tell me,” he cracked.
Given that the original recording featured nine musicians (including such long-gone monsters like John Abercrombie, Michael Brecker and George Duke), I wondered how Cobham was going to re-create that session with only him and four other players. Well, 21st-century technology is a beautiful thing, allowing keyboardist Scott Tibbs to conjure up his own ivory orchestra with just two baby electrics and a laptop. And what he couldn’t handle, reedman Paul Hanson could with an effects box that turned his bassoon into an Electronic Wind Instrument; this had the added bonus of letting Hanson “play” EWI without actually playing an EWI! (Someone needs to tell him that Dayna Stephens has brought the EWI into the 21st century and made it more than respectable.)
Mammoth guitar was no problem, as Fareed Haque brought all that and more to the evening. He may have started the set in a chair, but he didn’t stay there long, standing for the more rampant solo sections and earning his share of cheers from the 2/3rds-full house. And if you wanted to see a working definition of “mammoth,” you had to check out Cobham’s drum kit. The only reason it wasn’t the biggest set in my overloaded memory bank was because I’d seen Rush in concert twice: Neal Peart’s kit needed its own zip code and fire department.
Cobham’s kit wasn’t for show, either. At age 74, the man hasn’t lost a step, bringing good old-fashioned thunder drums to almost every inch of the 90-minutes-plus set. Occasionally tapping the edge of his cymbals with a drumstick was as gentle as Cobham got; apart from that, he went pedal-to-the-metal all the way. If Cobham does own a set of brushes, he probably uses them to dust the furniture.
Cobham and his partners ran through the entirety of Crosswinds, pausing only to play the drummer’s new compositions “On the Move” and “The Baobab Tree.” Still, both those pieces were entirely in line with the rest of the music, which owed a lot more to Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters than it did to anything Cobham cooked up with Miles. Hancock’s own solo project paired Davis’ fusion with an irrepressible funk vibe that drove the music right into your soul and down to your feet, which would undoubtedly commence to tapping. This was the case with the Crosswinds Project, all of it served with enough chops to feed the Green Bay Packers, delivered by a band with chemistry that was tight as… well, as a drum.
As a technical (and technological) standpoint, it was impressive as hell, earning two standing ovations and countless howls, particularly from the guy sitting above and behind my right ear. If you like to throw electric jazz and prog rock into a blender with a big splash of P-Funk, this was the show for you. For me, all it did was make me tired. I feel fusion fans attend shows like Billy Cobham’s Crosswinds Project for the same reason trad-jazz fans go see Lou Donaldson and Wynton Marsalis: They want their jazz encased in amber, untouched by whatever came after it. For those who see high school as a pivotal point in their lives, that’s the only way to fly. For those who feel jazz needs to keep moving in order to reach its highest potential, that’s a disappointing dead end.
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…