Book reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Brian Gruber: Six Days At Ronnie Scott’s – Billy Cobham On Jazz Fusion And The Act Of Creation

Brian Gruber: Six Days At Ronnie Scott’s – Billy Cobham On Jazz Fusion And The Act Of Creation
(CreateSpace. 201pp. Book Review by Frank Griffith)

Brian Gruber‘s new book has the hallmarks of one of the greatest tomes about perhaps the most influential drummers and bandleaders of this or any other era. Gruber has captured Billy Cobham‘s insights, humour and straightforwardness to an extent that no one else has previously achieved. One major reason for this is Gruber’s approach of interweaving the texts of one-to-one interviews with Cobham with his observations of the Billy Cobham/Guy Barker Big Band during their 2017 six-day residency at Ronnie Scott’s. This allows the reader to move between the two kinds of narrative in a balanced way, avoiding the need to absorb too much of either in one go. Not unlike a radio host playing frequent tracks interspersed with interviewing a noted guest, Gruber clearly gets the balance right, keeping the reader’s attention as he makes each new angle on how Billy ticks emerge into view.

Gruber’s chronicling of the dialogue with him and Cobham virtually puts the reader in the nightclub, the cafe or a moving car hosting an interview. There are cameos from a plethora of jazz legends like Ron Carter, Jan Hammer, Randy Brecker and fellow drummer Bill Bruford (also an innovative figure in jazz/rock fusion). Their comments and insights convey not only their respect for Cobham but acknowledges his playing with Dr Billy Taylor, Horace Silver and Miles Davis to his bridging the transition to his trailblazing bands and recordings in the 1970s. In addition, Gruber’s interviews with a younger generation of his current band-members like Steve Hamilton, Carl Orr, Mike Mondesir and arranger and bandleader, Guy Barker are inspiring as well. They not only reveal their feelings about playing under Cobham but their own journey and hopes and dreams as well.

Cobham left an indelible impression on the jazz, jazz-fusion and drum worlds when he came to wider prominence with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1971. Led by Doncaster-born guitarist John McLaughlin, with violinist Jerry Goodman and Czech-born pianist Jan Hammer, it was probably the first international jazz supergroup. Hammer playfully refers to the music as “Indian Improvisational Olympics” in his interview but despite this, no drummer had fused pinpoint jazz articulation, four-way independence with acute melodic tuning and 16th note and swing grooves in equal measure. He changed the direction of jazz percussion influencing a generation of players in the process.

One minor quibble is the rather spartan discography. It lists the titles, labels and (mostly) years of Cobham’s fifty recordings, but omits any mention of the personnel or locations or dates. I realise that this information is probably available elsewhere online, but it would have been useful to be able to refer to it alongside the recollections.

Six Days provides a terrific insight into the music and life of a world-class drummer resulting in a unique and challenging document for fans of Cobham, jazz, fusion and the culture of the 60s and 70s. A must and thoroughly enjoyable read.

LINK: Gruber Media website

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