REVIEW: Billy Cobham with the Guy Barker Big Band at Ronnie Scott's

Billy Cobham
Photo Credit and © Carl Hyde

Billy Cobham with the Guy Barker Big Band
(Ronnie Scott's. 27 June 2018. Review by Frank Griffith)

This being the third of a six-night run at the fabled Soho venue and showed that the ensemble was well warmed up and in full gear.

The gig was preceded by a book launch for Brian Gruber's Six Days at Ronnie Scott's based on a similar residency Billy Cobham had done last year at the club. It included a short interview with the author and Cobham, followed by a few questions from the sold-out audience. Cobham fluently spoke of his upbringing in Panama rattling on pots and pans from the age of three as well as how his Panamanian culture continues to inform and shape his music to this day, including that of the big band. He also mentioned the seminal 1959 LP, The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess, arranged by Bill Potts featuring an arsenal of top NYC jazz musicians from Zoot Sims and Phil Woods to Art Farmer, Charlie Shavers and JJ Johnson. This served as a prime example of how the confluence of great material, arranging and players could prevail over "the sum of its parts", as it were. A landmark album to be sure. This was clearly his ethos and goal for what Cobham and the Guy Barker Big Band had in mind too.

The show featured seven Cobham compositions skillfully arranged by Barker that ran the gamut from his ealry 1970s LPs, Crosswinds and Spectrum, to current works. A rich variety and cross section of grooves, tempi and styles resulted. A "This is Your Life" of sorts as, even at 74, Cobham shows no signs of retirement or slowing down. His playing and vitality resonated and impressed with aplomb throughout.

The band included an outstanding array of soloists, including saxophoinists Sam Mayne and Tom Barford along with veteran Phil Todd. In addition to Barker's powerful and spirited solos, special plaudits to the lead work of Nottingham lad Nathan Bray. A demanding task to be sure, not least for a programme of such complexity to be sustained for a 90 minute set! The trombone solos, shared by Alastair White and Dave Williamson, were significant in their intensity, power and verve. It is often the case with big bands that trombone solos get "short shrift" in favour of saxes and trumpets but not the case here, clearly, and all the better for it. The top class rhythm section included Scots pianist Steve Hamilton, and guitarist Dave Dunsmere, both of whom more than rose to the occasion with their frequent solo excursions to boot. The solid and creative bass work of Mike Mondesir scored resoundingly throughout with him often beaming at the drummer while manning the "engine room" of this stellar rhythm team.

After explaining to  the audience that he was "now going to embark on doing what the contract required", Cobham proceeded with a five-minute solo drums introduction demonstrating a variety of dramatic cross rhythms amongst changing tonal colours. He then whittled it down with hand tapping on the snare drum in a duet with bass drum interjections. After drawing down to a quiet close a three-minute long pastoral sounding  brass chorale section ensued as  a prelude to a rompin'-stompin', full-on treatment of Cobham's 1970s hit Red Baron featuring a blistering tenor solo by Paul Booth. This then led to a bombastic finish, of course, and needless to say, the night was over – both band and audience completely poleaxed

Quality music, a great band and a stunner drummer. Let's have them back for another six-day stint in 2019, please.

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