BILLY COBHAM — Spectrum (review)

BILLY COBHAM — Spectrum album cover Album · 1973 · Fusion Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Billy Cobham already had a top-notch pedigree stemming from his sessions with Miles Davis on his revolutionary "Bitches Brew," but his awe-inspiring drumming with The Mahavishnu Orchestra made him a household name among musicians of all genres in the early 70s. This well-deserved popularity helped him to land a record deal, assemble a group of virtuosos and cut his first solo album in 1973. But rather than write the kind of complex and difficult-to-assimilate tunes that had characterized his previous musical involvements, Billy optioned to string together a collection of powerful, energized instrumentals that placed a heavy emphasis on the rock dimension of Jazz Rock/fusion. Aware that he wouldn't have weeks of studio time to allow for unlimited takes in the pursuit of perfect tracks (not that these are loose by any means), Cobham aimed for emotional spontaneity mixed with adrenaline and the result is a joyous, unbridled album of great songs. The extraordinary keyboard wizard Jan Hammer and Billy waste no time loitering in front of the album as they come charging out of the gate in a full sprint on "Quadrant 4." With Cobham's double bass drums rumbling like a freight train, the tune's laughing melody pulls you in without a struggle and sets you up for the full brunt of Tommy Bolin's fierce, fire-breathing guitar. The indispensable gadget he utilizes so expertly, causing his solo to explode out of your speakers is the famous Echoplex and I'm not convinced that modern technology has yet to fully duplicate (much less improve on) its unique capabilities. This project most definitely sprang from the mind of a drummer so from time to time you are treated to short but very expressive percussion forays like "Searching for the Right Door" where Billy shows off his meticulously fine-tuned kit. It leads to "Spectrum," a fine modern jazz piece that spotlights Joe Farrell's flute and soprano sax and Jimmy Owens' flugelhorn. It's presented in a tricky 7/8 time signature and Joe's sax break in particular is exquisite. "Anxiety" is another quick-to-pass drum sequence that serves as the intro for "Taurian Matador," a fast and funky strut with a more involved melody line that ends up in a battle of riffs between Hammer and Bolin that will tear your head off. A word here about Tommy. With his sterling reputation Billy could have recruited any number of incredible jazz guitarists to play on this album but I think he chose Bolin because he didn't want intricacy, he wanted dazzling fireworks and to hell with precision. Tommy was the right choice because he turns in some of the most intense guitar rides you'll ever hear.

"Stratus" is the tune that got the all-important radio airplay and everybody's attention. And for good reason. It's a monster cut. Smooth, spacey sounds from Jan and Tommy are followed by Cobham's light-speed noodlings and samplings on the Moog synthesizer drum, then a clean closed roll ends with a hard snap of the snare and off you go. One of the most appealing things about Billy's compositions is his ability to come up with memorable melodies and this is one of his best. Here Cobham and bassist Lee Sklar lay down a rhythm track that's tighter than the seals on a submarine but Billy's not content to just sit back and play the downbeat. He's an interactive drummer. When Bolin gets to shredding on his Strat Billy is right there with him, lifting the whole song into orbit. Same thing with Hammer's solo, then Cobham flies over the skins and a repeating riff as the song trails off into the ether. The tune is just under 10 minutes of pure sizzle. Billy wisely inserts some serenity at this point with Jan's beautiful acoustic piano rendition of "To the Women in my Life," followed by the Latin-flavored "Le Lis" that glides along gracefully like a lithe dancer. Hammer supplies a tastefully restrained synthesizer lead to complement Owens' skill on trumpet. "Snoopy's Search" is a final but furious taste of the drum synth that slows to a lone pulse before the band slides into "Red Baron." The song has a contagious funky feel and one of the coolest melody lines ever. Tommy's subdued tone is priceless and he throws in a few harmonics hither and yon to keep you intrigued. Hammer storms in with some lightning from his electric piano and guides you the rest of the way home.

This is a masterpiece not because it is immaculate or world changing or absolutely mind- blowing but because it is so consistently and undeniably GOOD. And I mean that in the best way. There's not a skip-over track to be found and there's a delightful atmosphere of shared, mutual gratification emanating from the musicians involved that seeps right out of the music directly into the heart. It's a one of a kind album that will appeal to and entertain your jazz-lovin' ears even if you don't usually venture anywhere near jazz rock/fusion. Do yourself a favor and add this to your collection. Play it when you need some pep in your step. It's like sunshine for the soul.
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