Autobiographies are often 500 or 600 pages long – sometimes more than that. Greatest hits albums are double-discs or stretch to 19 or 20 tracks. You can’t help but get the feeling that the artist is most definitely their own biggest fan. Not many are prepared to write a 150 or 200-page memoir but when you find them (as with Hampton Hawes and Chet Baker in particular) you tend to get the better read. And I’ve always thought that a great statement would be the Greatest Hits EP. But no one could do it right? Decide that just 5 or 6 songs were utterly essential. Everyone thinks they’ve done more good than they have; more good than bad. And actually that’s hardly ever the case. It just isn’t true.
I was thinking about this – I often think about this – when I reconnected with one of my all-time favourite greatest hits albums. Well, it’s not even a “Greatest Hits” as such – given the guy didn’t really have hits. The Best of Billy Cobham features just eight tracks. There were other, longer compilations that followed. I didn’t like them as much. The Best of Billy Cobham was all I ever needed. All I needed to know.
Well, I’d heard his playing with Miles Davis on his Tribute to Jack Johnson album and I knew about Cobham as one (important) member of the virtuosic supergroup, Mahavishnu Orchestra. I’d heard him on a few other Miles Davis albums too and with George Benson. And then I started reading about his impact and influence and I was keen to hear the solo albums.
That’s when this Best of Billy Cobham first appeared in my life. As a compact disc. And I remember thinking how modest it was to have just eight tracks – Cobham’s playing was anything but modest. Especially when you hit play and heard the first track.
Cobham was all over everything – an octopus across the toms, and with his left hand grooving on the hi-hat, beating it hard as if it owed him money. His open-hand playing made him look like the absolute boss. So calm, centred, in control.
But there were slinky, sultry, subtle grooves too. And then there were songs – like the mighty Stratus – that combined both elements, all the virtuosity, dazzle and chops but with an efficient, propulsive groove. He was the sort of player that you listened to with your ear to the stereo and your jaw to the ground. His sound and skill mesmerising and explosive.
And after years of not thinking about Cobham quite so much (he’s still alive, still playing – he released some pretty horrible stuff in the 1980s, but that seemed to be the curse of many, so out of touch with what to do as they tried to be hip in that decade) I stumbled upon a copy of that same Best Of album on vinyl. It was home to the turntable to take it in.
I’d just finished a band rehearsal myself. Dug the sticks out of their hiding place (they are semi-retired, perhaps by court-order as much as anything else). But a Sunday knock-around on the kit called. The chance to sit in with a great band, one of my favourites; not an offer that many people get. I’m happy to take it when it comes. And just as I was feeling like I had coped pretty well – a bunch of songs I’d never heard before, a few I knew but had never worked on – I sat down with the Billy Cobham record.
And felt like I wasn’t even capable of speaking the same language.
But there was nothing deflating about it.
I sat listening in awe. So much in common with the 13 year old me that was convinced Cobham was one of the very best. Only my new favourites now were the songs I didn’t rate as much then. The groove pieces, the ones where Cobham took a bit of a back seat.
And Stratus too of course. His masterpiece.