Fascinating perspectives on the vital role of percussionists like Mister Cobham on The Gears Page forum. Here is an excerpt from comments by FlyingVBlues and a link to the full thread.
I recently read “Six Days at Ronnie Scott’s: Billy Cobham on Jazz Fusion and the Act of Creation” by Brian Gruber. It was a series of interviews with Billy, Jan Hammmer, Ron Carter, Randy Brecker and others. Billy said that when he was in Mahavishnu “he was just a drummer in the band” and “he was the guy that no one expected anything from”. This set of interviews made me greatly appreciate what a driving force a really dominant drummer could be, and how such a drummer could be the difference between a good band and a great band. As a guitarist I greatly admire and respect Eric Clapton and John McLaughlin, and I love the music of Miles Davis and Parliament/Funkadelic. But I don’t think any of those artists/bands would have been as powerful in either their records or in their live performances without an outstanding drummer.
… And in Mahavishnu when you think about the performances, and not the compositions that McLaughlin wrote, Cobham and sometimes Jan Hammer were way more important to the sound of that band then McLaughlin was. If you listen carefully to John McLaughlin he has a problem keeping time. He has a tendency to speed up the tempo, and Cobham deftly anchors his playing to keep the time where it should be. Billy can play in a groove that sets and maintains the rhythm and tempo of the piece, which is something that McLaughlin doesn’t so well. And listen to Cobham’s playing on the “Jack Johnson” album. Billy Cobham brought a funkier approach to Miles’ recordings, and the groove on “Right Off” and also “Corrado” on “Bitches Brew” are among the strongest Miles Davis ever recorded.