Anatomy of THE Groove 11/14/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Sign ‘O’ The Times” by Billy Cobham

                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.

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4 Comments

Filed under 1980's, Billy Cobham, drums, Fusion, Grover Washington Jr., Jazz, Prince, Robert Glasper

4 responses to “Anatomy of THE Groove 11/14/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Sign ‘O’ The Times” by Billy Cobham

  1. Interesting post – while being obvious, I never have thought that new Jazz standards still emerge. Somehow, I have always been thinking of them as being a defined, closed set of pieces, but of course it is not.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Jazz just really needs to be less cynical about it’s interpretive side. As a jazz appreciator? I find some other jazz oriented individuals are more concerned about showcasing how “victimized” jazz is by musical modernity than in actually looking into the pop world for new themes to deal with. I think maybe that attitude of some people may have affected your viewpoint a little bit. Maybe not,but it sure did mine. But your right. It’s like Miles Davis. Like Robert Glasper today,he saw the importance of embracing newer melodies as jazz standards-for the futurism of jazz. As long as jazz choose to do that? It’s spirit of improvisational art will continue to survive.

  2. Great jazz interpretation of this classic and a great write up and review of it! This song marked such a turning point in Prince’s career in terms of critical appreciation, in line with a general uptick in social consciousness in black music in the late ’80s. What you mention here, and the existence of a cover version of this song by a world renowned jazz drummer like Cobham and an icon of crossover jazz like Grover Washington, exemplify why Miles Davis said Prince could be “The Duke Ellington of our time if he keeps at it.” Of course I’d say that’s highly unlikely due to the way Duke’s ability to deal with people and highlight his musicians as well as play and compose took him to another level, I can understand the sentiment based on Prince’s I credible talent and body of work!

    One of the reasons this song might be attractive to jazz musicians is Prince’s ability to come in 1987, and deliver a spare, street smart, hard as nails modern plaintive blues. Incorporating the harsh mechanical icy vibe of hip hop found on Run-DMC songs like “Hard Times” and especially Grandmaster Flash’s The Message.” It’s interesting u mention Cobhams millitary rudiments, which Prince himself suggests at the end of the song with his electric percussion, and remember the film of the album concert? Prince brings all his people out to play it on snare drums. An interesting example of how jazz rearranges and recomposes!

    • That’s an excellent most you bought up about Prince’s elasticity as a composer. And again,the realization that Cobham was so keen on interpreting a then new Prince songs showcases how the musical spirit of jazz was very much alive in the 1980’s.

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