Rob Ryan talks to Chris Maas and Billy Cobham, two drummers who truly embrace the space where music meets image
Music, particularly jazz music, and photography have long enjoyed a healthy symbiotic relationship. Think of the evocative photographs by Herman Leonard, William Claxton or Milt Hinton (who also played bass); images of clubs, patrons and players so powerful you can almost smell the cigarette smoke, hear the splash of a cymbal, the tinkle of highball glasses.
The two art forms have something else in common: a powerful sense of their own history. Everyone who is serious about jazz studies the masters, be it the fiendishly mathematical complexity of Charlie Parker's bebop or the lyricism of Bill Evans's piano. Photographers, too, are drawn back to the great practitioners of their art – the Robert Capas, Lee Millers and Bert Hardys – analysing and sometimes imitating, until, like musicians, they find their own style.
I recently spoke to two drummers, a generation apart, who share a love of all styles of music and a passion for photography – the veteran Billy Cobham, whose CV should just say 'played with everyone who is anyone in jazz and beyond', and session drummer Chris Maas, who, although best known as the fiery live percussionist for Mumford & Sons, is also a much-in-demand session drummer.
Cobham has been a photographer for over half a century. 'I started shooting seriously in the army, back in 1964,' he says. 'That was my secondary military occupation, after drumming instructor. Then, when I left the army, I never really stopped. I did my first album cover for Blue Note, for Horace Silver's Serenade to a Soul Sister, in 1968.' Which meant he was following in the f-stops of Francis Wolff, another legend who shot many of the iconic Blue Note covers. 'Absolutely I was.'
Maas, on the other hand, is a relatively recent convert, having been mentored in 2011 by Ted Dwane, the bass player in Mumford & Sons. 'Ted showed me some of his work and then lent me a film camera so I could try it for myself.' It didn't take long before he was hooked, and he too turned to the masters of light and shade. 'I got into Leicas because of the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt. I realised these brilliant photographers all used Leicas. So I traded in the film cameras I had acquired along the way, added some money and bought a Leica M6 and a 50mm Summicron lens, which I still have.' And was it the right decision? He laughs. 'Absolutely. I have switched partly to digital now, though film is still my first love. For convenience I use a Leica Q, the best all-round compact you can buy. It's just an incredible camera. But you know, I am so pleased I started with film. It makes me think about each shot more carefully – the framing, the composition – than I might have done had I gone straight into digital. It's given me a discipline and I think a better understanding of the way the camera works.'
Cobham, too, has embraced pixels. 'I made the switch four or five years ago. I've retired my M3 and shoot with an M8 or, especially for documentaries like my recent Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat in Arizona, an S Typ 007. Everything I used to do in the darkroom, I can do in the camera now. And I don't feel like I've been sniffing airplane glue for five hours.'
One other thing the two drummers have in common is that the camera is a constant companion on the road. 'With the Mahavishnu Orchestra,' says Cobham, 'we were touring for two years solid. I'd always get up early the day of a show and I'd walk round town with my camera and I'd be alone. When you are in a band doing that many gigs, you are with the guys 24/7 and you need some space. Going out with my Leica helped me gather my wits, my feelings, about how I felt about me that day.'
Maas agrees. 'Having a camera gives the day a structure, a purpose, when you are on tour. I get up earlier now to catch the light, for instance. And when we are in the middle of nowhere, a small town, with no obvious entertainment, instead of hanging around the hotel, I'll go looking for a subject to shoot. The camera has taught me you can find something interesting, something beautiful, everywhere.'
Neither man would be drawn on a favourite image they have captured, not even given the this-is-the-one-I'd-save-from-a-burning-house challenge. Cobham, because, as with his music, he doesn't think he has made a final, definitive statement yet. 'I'm still exploring,' he insists. Maas because, as he says, 'I'm just at the beginning of this journey.' But both hope to have exhibitions at a Leica gallery in the next few years, where the public can catch up with their work-still-in-progress. Watch this wall space.
Rob Ryan is an author and writer for The Times and The Sunday Times
Images of Billy Cobham taken by Chris Maas during Billy’s recent tenure at Ronnie Scott’s, London. The images were shot on a Leica Q and SL.