It’s 1976. Beer comes in pull-tab cans and Miles Davis has taken a leave of absence. People don’t really know it, but jazz fusion is nearing the end of it’s creative streak: Mahavishnu Orchestra has burned through two lineups and Weather Report has just enlisted Jaco Pastorius, who’ll help propel the band into the stratosphere and towards glossy, slick jazz-pop.
For most of this year, Billy Cobham, George Duke and Alfonso Johnson toured together. They had impressive resumes: Cobham played with Davis and Mahavishnu, creating a reputation as a furious yet accurate drummer, while Johnson’s funky electric bass helped move Weather Report from the spacey, ambient grooves of their first few records towards the driving, funky fusion of Mysterious Traveler. Meanwhile, Duke had worked with Cannonball Adderley, but came into his own with Frank Zappa’s mid-70s Mothers of Invention, where he expanded into synthesizers and vocal duties, and left a unique mark on Zappa’s music. Rounding out the quartet was John Scofield, their the wild card: young, with a short resume and killer guitar chops.
As they toured, the Cobham and Duke band could’ve taken their lead from any of their members past: comedy rock, hard-driving funk or rhythmically complex jazz-fusion. Instead, they drew on all of these to become something else: a band who could be funky and pulsating with energy at one moment and only go off into a spoken interlude or weird spacey improvisations. At their best, they jammed hard and fast; at their worst, their antics were probably fun in person, but don’t translate to records.
Which, unfortunately, was how the only official document of this band shows them. “Live” on Tour in Europe is a mixed bag, an out-of-focus snapshot of a band dwelling on what doesn’t work and offering only glimpses of the band in full flight. “Space Lady” is a Zappa-esque monologue by Duke about an alien; “Frankenstein at the Disco” is a extended drum solo which overstays it’s welcome.
Fortunately, there are bootlegs of this tour, in, particularly a very good one from Hempstead on March 19, 1976. Let’s dive in.
Things in Hempstead start in full swing with a version of Cobham’s “Panhandler,” where Scofield unleashes on an extended solo, and the band deftly segues into an energetic “Floop De Loop,” and the slow groove of “East Bay,” each song giving them ample room to solo and jam; after nearly half an hour, they finally take a breather and Cobham introduces the band.
“This ain’t no Frank Zappa concert,” says a laughing Cobham. It’s not: it’s driving, it’s funky and it’s a full of tight musicianship: Scofield’s sizzling guitar, Johnson’s electric bass and Cobham’s propulsive drumming. There aren’t any cheesy jokes, any ironic covers or 10-minute guitar solos. At the same time, the influence of Zappa on Duke’s stage presence is undeniable: the silly monologues and spacey keyboard improvisations are all holdovers from Duke’s time as a Mother. Later, they’ll even cover two Zappa songs: “Echidna’s Arf,” blasting through its tricky passages with élan, and the slow groove of “Uncle Remus” (both also appeared on a then-recent Duke record). The evening closes with a slow, extended version of Johnson’s “Involuntary Bliss,” where the band stretches out and Scofield’s guitar sizzles against Duke’s keyboards.
The band plays well throughout, but Cobham’s drumming is especially on point: he’s all over the place, drumming fast and hard, but never overwhelms the rest of the band. Things really come together on “Earthlings,” where his drumming pushes the band forward and raises the tension. Before long, he’s going so hard and fast you’d swear there was a second kit. This was an interesting tour for Cobham; in an interview with Down Beat, he claimed he’d get so deep into a groove he’d have astral projections and watch himself drumming from up above the stage.
After this show in Hempstead, the band continued playing: there was a string of dates in Europe, including a nice set at the Montreux Jazz Festival and finally some more shows in the US that fall. But after about a year, everyone went their own ways; “Live” On Tour In Europe would be the Billy Cobham-George Duke Band’s only official release.
With Cobham’s solo records getting the reissue treatment – Rhino/Atlantic released a box of his early 70s records last year – maybe there’s some more of this band still in the vaults. And given the popularity of Weather Report’s recent live box set, there’s a market, too. But until then, this set’ll do nicely. words / m milner