Live review

Billy Cobham and the Sultan Stevenson Trio at the Jazz Cafe

Billy Cobham Group and Sultan Stevenson Trio

(Jazz Cafe, Camden, 30 September 2021. First night of two. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Billy Cobham, Munich 2015. Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski

“The music never lies. We’re having a good time.” said Billy Cobham in his first spoken comment during the band’s set. The drummer does exude exactly the right vibe to welcome the punters back to live gigs. And the joyful looks which the rest of his band (Steve Hamilton and Nikki Yeoh (keyboards facing each other), David Dunsmuir (guitar) and Michael Mondesir (bass) kept giving each other on this first of two nights reaffirmed the joy of sharing live music. Cobham hasn’t been at the Jazz Cafe since 2017, but it felt like a happy homecoming. The band were playing to a virtually full house on the first night, and a full one on the second, Right from the start of Crosswinds (set list courtesy of Nikki Yeoh below) the mood was set.

I found myself marvelling at the liveliness of the sound, the sense of effortless flow of Billy Cobham on the drums, and the way that sound and that personality inspire the band. I started up a conversation with T Bruce Wittet in Ottawa, whose technical knowledge of drumming is completely mesmerising. He talks about how his set-up and control have been a constant since the days with Cannonball Adderley… the (ambidextrous?) fluidity of the way Billy Cobham keeps circling the kit…. this is hopefully going to lead to a fascinating and more technical piece here at some point. For the time being I shall just have to put up a white flag of surrender and describe what Cobham does as ‘alchemy’ or ‘magic’.

Jakob Gryn and Sultan Stevenson at the Jazz Cafe (Sultan Stevenson Trio). Photo credit Leon Barker

The trio of Sultan Stevenson (electric piano), Jacob Gryn (bass), and Joel Waters (drums – photo below) won over the audience convincingly and early, and then held their attention throughout a 30-minute support set. That achievement will never be a given in circumstances where a crowd is, in truth, just filling in time waiting for the main act. But the trio did it, and they did it well… What was impressive was the unflashy dramaturgy of their set, their common understanding of level, and the clever use of silence really drew people in. This is music which is deeply felt and thought, yet the audience were clearly getting it. At a first hearing, I was taken with the way Stevenson’s compositions play with setting up grooves that have a certain unease and lop-sidedness but also elegance about them – he clearly knows his McCoy Tyner – and his clever use of repeated motifs clearly has an element of (the unavoidable) Esbjorn Svensson in there too. The crowd took Sultan Stevenson to their hearts and gave him and his fellow players loud and encouraging applause at several points, and there were quite a few cheers at the end.

Joel Waters at the Jazz Cafe (Sultan Stevenson Trio). Photo credit Leon Barker

Billy Cobham Set List

Crosswinds
Cancun Market
Cat in the Hat
Panama
Red and yellow Cabriolet
Stratus
Tierra del Fuego
Red Baron

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