Sound Check: Jazz legend Cobham to visit Tangier

Drummer-composer has band of veterans for his gig on Sunday celebrating ‘Spectrum’

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Jazz fusion legend Billy Cobham will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his debut solo album "Spectrum" with a show at The Tangier on Sunday, Jan. 20.

Perhaps January is the unofficial jazz month in N.E. Ohio because this is a good week for fans of smooth jazz, jazz fusion and soul/blues jazz with a couple of bona fide living legends and a longtime smooth-jazz favorite coming to the area.

First up in the living legend category is drummer/composer Billy Cobham who will perform at Tangier in Akron on Sunday.

The 68-year-old Cobham’s resume is filled with notable names and gigs including his early days with the Brecker Brothers and guitarist John Abercrombie and a stint in the early ’70s with Miles Davis’ experimental and controversial albums including Bitches Brew, On the Corner and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

Cobham also recorded and/or toured with artists such as bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Larry Coryell, composer Gil Evans, Carlos Santana, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Carly Simon, James Brown, Mose Allison and many more.

Oh yeah, and Cobham was also a founding member of jazz-rock-fusion icons the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

As a band leader, Cobham has released more than 40 albums. His current tour is dedicated to the 40th anniversary of his solo debut Spectrum, one of the more respected and influential albums in the jazz fusion genre sitting alongside other important fusion records such as Mahavishnu’s Inner Mounting Flame, Davis’ Bitches Brew (both featuring Cobham) and Weather Report’s Heavy Weather.

Cobham’s funky grooves have been heavily sampled. Notably, the track Stratus (from Spectrum) was sampled by U.K. trip-hop crew Massive Attack for its song Safe From Harm and folks such as DJ Shadow, Gang Starr’s DJ Premier and emcee Common.

Cobham’s drumming style is rhythmically complex with taut machine gun fills and groovy polyrhythmic craziness.

He plays a massive drum kit that would make Rush’s Neil Peart jealous. He can play a tasteful straight jazz shuffle, get real funky or beat the drums like a rock god on amphetamines (which may be redundant) at times in the same song.

As a composer, he usually gives the listener a hummable melody and/or groove with all the technical razzle dazzle.

For the current tour, Cobham has assembled a heck of a band of veterans including fellow Mahavishnu founding member electric violinist Jerry Goodman, keyboardist Gary Husband, guitarist Dean Brown and bassist Ric Fierabracci.

I’ll assume that the band will work through more than just the Spectrum album. Cobham’s more recent material such as his 2010 album Palindrome has leaned a little more toward pop and I’m sure Cobham will do one of his patented solo compositions, so it will be a clinic for area jazz drummers and a groovy good time for jazz fans.

Continuing with the living legends, Hammond B-3 master Booker T. Jones will be returning to the area (he performed in Cuyahoga Falls last year) performing a doubleheader at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights tonight.

The 68-year-old Jones, former frontman for Stax artist/house band Booker T. & the MGs, has had a good couple of years professionally. His most recent album, 2011’s Road to Memphis, featured hip-hop band/Late Night With Jimmy Fallon house band The Roots and was co-produced by Roots drummer/producer Amhir Questlove Thompson and hit-making mixer/producer Rob Schnaf.

The album features pleasant contemporary surprises such as a boogaloo cover of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and a hard funk take on Lauren Hill’s Everything Is Everything. There are also guest vocals from “Yim Yames” (My Morning Jacket singer Jim James), Sharon Jones, The National’s Matt Berninger and Lou Reed actually singing. The bonus track is a cover of Biz Markie’s Just a Friend (recently heard in a commercial).

Road to Memphis garnered Jones his second Grammy win in a row for best pop instrumental album just as its 2009 predecessor Potato Hole did.

Jones isn’t from the Jimmy Smith school of fleet-fingered jazz organists. Rather, he’s steeped in the blues preferring tasteful, soulful and jazzy licks over lengthy lightning-fast runs. Toe-tapping and a desire to get up off your thang and dance till you feel better are pretty much guaranteed.

Last but not least are smooth jazz favorites Pieces of a Dream also playing at smooth jazz central, aka Tangier, on Saturday night.

The band, led by keyboardist James Lloyd and drummer Curtis Harmon, has been around since 1976 and has some hits including Warm Weather, Mount Airy Groove and Fo Fi Fo.

The two leaders cut their teeth as teenagers touring with seminal smooth jazz icon Grover Washington Jr. who also produced the band’s early albums.

Even for a smooth jazz group, Pieces of a Dream’s music leans heavily into the contemporary R&B & pop realm, one of the reasons it’s been so popular for so long. Smooth jazz ain’t my bailiwick, so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the group, but chances are if you’re a fan of the genre you are well aware of these Quiet Storm mainstays.

Kudos to my team

If I may, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate my San Francisco 49ers on reaching the NFC Championship game for the second year in a row.

Oh wait, I already did. Go NINERS!

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram. … Go figure.

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