One of the challenges that has arisen for jazz musicians during the fusion era was the book of standards they had for interpretive purposes. While original compositions were always pretty sound? A melodic theme from a contemporary artist could be a wonderful musical launching pad from which said musician could take flight. As Miles Davis and recently Robert Glasper pointed out? Well basically how many times can a musician do a song like “My Funny Valentine” or “The Look Of Love”? In the late 80’s, Prince albums such as his musically iconic Sign ‘O’ The Times were not only getting serious reviews in jazz publications such as Downbeat. But musicians across the spectrum were discussing his instrumental and compositional ideas as well. One such musician was fusion veteran Billy Cobham. And he chose “Sign O’ The Times” as an interpretive theme for his 1987 album Picture This-his final release for GRP.
Cobham starts out with a fairly basic drum machine pulse much like the original. Than he comes in on live drums with a commanding,rolling march rhythm. This is accentuated by a simple Caribbean style percussion chime throughout. The late Grover Washington Jr. plays the vocal part on his sax with not only his typically high level of soulfulness,but also a foreboding tone to his solo. On what would’ve been the second refrain? Grover’s sax totally takes over as he improvises his own melody off of Cobham’s marching back-round. He starts off rather bluesy and almost crying out. Than he begins to sound progressively angrier and more emotionally intense. All before calming down to play the songs bass line,and then returning back to the original melodic theme. At the songs conclusion,Cobham and Grover both gradually evolve into playing an instrumentally testifying march together while Ron Carter provides the bass line on the upright.
It’s true that within the last couple of decades,Prince’s songs have become enormously successful in terms of being covered by jazz and blues instrumentalists and bands. The most exciting thing about Billy Cobham’s take on “Sign ‘O’ The Times” is how in tune he was with the song. He recorded his version and released it the same year that the original hit the public. Instrumentally speaking,Billy Cobham reaches into the lyrical theme of the song as a drummer for his take on it-almost more than he does the basic chords and melody. Adding a Caribbean style marching beat to the song lifted up the observing,questioning nature Prince originally evoked. Grover Washington Jr. is also most impressive-again playing his solos as a tone poem based more on the lyrics to the song rather than the straight melody. Considering what Prince was doing with his jazz oriented Madhouse recordings at this time? Musicians like Billy Cobham were really doing a wonderful job cross pollinating the flowers of the possible new jazz standards of musicians like Prince.