Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Billy Cobham's Asère @ The Gala, Durham

It seems to defeat the idea of blogging to post a review of a gig that took place almost 2 weeks ago. Isn't this culture supposed to be all about the moment, a commentary on daily life shortly after it has happened and while the experiences are fresh in the mind?

Afric Pepperbird has never been like that though, and much of its focus is on presenting reviews from the distant past that I've had published in various magazines. My ethics stop me from posting recently published pieces - the magazines pay me for my words and deserve the right to sell the publication to subscribers and on the news stands. Few people, if any, will buy the magazine solely to read my pieces, but a lengthy period of grace before anything appears here is only right, allowing time for the publication to be read, filed away, despatched to a bin or buried in a landfill site. For those reasons then, most of what you read here tends to be 'old' news.

What that has to do with my thoughts on a gig that I went to see in my home town almost two weeks ago should be about to become apparent. Unlike the Brad Mehldau gig, I didn't feel compelled to write anything much about Billy Cobham after the event. He's never been a drummer I've liked very much, and in many ways I find his musical aesthetics highly vulgar. It would have been churlish to sit at home and miss the event, complaining so often as I do about the lack of 'culture' hereabouts. With its Latin Jazz leanings I also thought that his latest band Asère would be a good show to take Louise to see. Not too deep in her family tree are South American roots, and I was right to make the effort to book tickets. For the most part it turned out to be a night of surprisingly traditional Cuban music that we both enjoyed, with perhaps less jazz than I'd have expected but lots of appeal for other reasons. After some reflection and a few weeks spent listening to some other Cuban music, the time has come to preserve my thoughts for posterity.

Of course Cobham looked slightly preposterous, a small figure sitting Tom Thumb-like behind an unfeasibly large drum kit. With so much percussion already in his band he still had to have more things at his disposal to hit than the the rest of the group put together. The line-up was unusual to say the least - only one brass or woodwind instrument, two acoustic guitars, no keyboards, electric bass, a gnome-like singer and three percussionists. Trumpeter Michel Padron was confident in the upper register, had a nice relaxed and bluesy approach to phrasing and a modern harmonic palette. He carried most of the serious solo work, although it was fair to say that this group was less about jazz in the head-solos-head sense than it was about playing traditional and rhythmically complex Cuban music. The twin guitarists were nice contrasts, Andres Valdes' flamenco stylings being more impressive on the night than Alejandro Albar's sometimes laboured steel strung offerings.

The band played two sets and the material was varied enough to avoid feeling same-y. Some of the more contemporary feeling pieces grabbed me more than the Buena Vista-like material, but the best moments actually turned out to be the most musically pared down. A percussion trio, with Cobham leaving his drum throne and sitting out front to play small hand persussion, could have been a snapshot from an imagined Havana street corner. Cobham of course had his moments of glory behind the kit, but by and large it was ego-less music and he kept a low profile. He started the second set with a showy but well controlled drum solo. Whereas most drummers could have been said to have used the entire kit at such a moment, with a kit of Cobham-like proportions he'd be lucky if he covered half of it. As his moment in the spotlight faded, he was then joined by bass and finally conga to build an impressive improvised duo-cum-trio.

As the set wore on a more pronounced party mood descended, the vocalist determined to get the theatre crowd out of their seats and onto their feet. Spurred on by his lewd hip-thrusts the crowd responded, and although I normally take a dim view of such frivolity at what should be a solemn creative rite, it was actually pretty good fun. Our next gig will be Herbie Hancock's new sextet in a week or so, and all things being equal a pretty prompt blog should follow. We're still busy as busy can be rushing round doing assorted chores, but along with taking some time out to do my latest batch of reviews for the magazine I'm determined not to let the blog fall too far behind.

Come on Herbie, don't let us down...

Fred Grand

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