Billy Cobham blasts off at Sicilia Jazz Festival

Martin Longley
Friday, September 24, 2021

The legendary jazz rock drummer shakes things up in Palermo, Italy

Billy Cobham in a purple haze - Photograph: Arturo Di Vita
Billy Cobham in a purple haze - Photograph: Arturo Di Vita

The Brass Group Foundation was established in 1974, and has consistently been responsible for importing the finest of global jazz artists to Palermo, in Sicily. The roots of the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana also stretch back to ‘74, continually entangled with the Brass activities. It’s taken them a while, but the Sicilia Jazz Festival just made its debut, presenting large scale shows at the outdoor Teatro di Verdura, as well as smaller gigs in three historic venues around the old Spasimo district.

The veteran drummer Billy Cobham was one of the biggest acts to appear, although he didn’t sell quite as many tickets as the local OJS. His massive rock-style drumkit has two bass drums, and a fast-breeding spread of snares, toms, and six cymbals, with barely enough space on his riser to house them all. Consequently, his sound is massive, a signature boom-quake, although Cobham’s true versatility was exposed during an extended, completely solo drum exploration, with his three band cohorts taking a break. It was the highlight of the set, particularly given the rigid fusion science of the opening retro-clutch of numbers.

This changed when the guitar-keys-bass took the levels down for ‘Panamá’, allowing in some space, and keeping it that way for the bulk of the remaining set. This is fruit from Cobham’s time with the Cuban combo Asere, prompting a slinking guitar solo, keyboards with an acoustic piano sound, and Cobham using two sticks in each hand, expressing himself on diligently tuned skins. The leader would have definitely given an encore in his earlier days but confessed to being somewhat fatigued after his intense 75min set.

The OJS were fronted by the Italian singer Mario Biondi, who stood just the right side of overly dramatic, with a notable technique of sweeping down very low in his range, as well as being commanding on a higher plateau. Ironically, the best number by far was the slightly strange reading of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’, steeped in a Zappa-like complexity, and highlighting the Orchestra’s all-female vocal quartet. Biondi returned for Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’, another stand-out, again with an imaginative arrangement. Otherwise, much of the set was dedicated to the stylings of Al Jarreau. The OJS also benefits from the unusual inclusion of vibraphone, marimba and tuba, probably lying closest to the expanded format of Gil Evans. It would be wonderful to catch the OJS with a jazz-soloing instrumentalist guest.

In terms of the local early evening sets, there was a markedly strong night at the Chiesa dello Spasimo (its direct translation is Church Of The Spasm), with two bands of an Afro-jazz-funk persuasion. In this majestic, high-vaulting, roofless construction, Mario Caminita’s quintet were followed by Mauro Patti’s group. Caminita’s keyboards were joined by flugelhorn, alto/soprano saxophones, bass and percussion, with liberal doses of laptop sonics. Tough funk took a medium pace, with electro drums matching well with congas and bongos. When singer Aleksandra entered, the material became dilute, including a dripping of 1977 Marvin Gaye, but with some crafty keyboard repeats. There was even a drum’n’bass vibe on their last tune, with added sitar drones, and vocal dhrupad samples on Caminita’s keys. The following Patti set had his drums joined by percussion (timbales), bass, guitar, alto and tenor saxophones, devoted to a jazzed Afrobeat sound. The horns blew sympathetically-charged unison lines, the drummer also played bendir frame-drum, and Latin beats fed in, this crew hiking their powers gradually throughout their fine performance.

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