Cobham reaches into the far reaches of outer space, thanks to some quality comrades
When Billy Cobham released his solo debut Spectrum in 1973, Jazz Fusion was at its peak in terms of appeal and popularity. Miles Davis was still flying high and pushing boundaries like no-one else; while a plethora of other fusion groups were forging new frontiers of their own, namely Weather Report, Return to Forever, and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, lead by the one and only John McLaughlin. One thing all these outfits had in common was that each was either founded, or contained members who had at some point played and recorded with Miles, and Billy Cobham was one of them.
First track “Quadrant 4” kicks down the door with some frenzied energetic workouts, most notably by Tommy Bolin, who plays his guitar like a man possessed, while Cobham exorcises a few demons of his own, so much so that I almost feel exhausted just listening to it. “Searching for the Right Door” is simply that, a brief and muscular drumming exercise, where Cobham proves he won’t need a fitness trainer any time soon.
Title track “Spectrum’ is certainly a little friendlier (and kinder) to the ears, and is largely dominated by the ubiquitous Jan Hammer (electric piano, moog etc), and Joe Farrell on soprano sax. Everyone seems in perfect harmony, almost as if they were able to read each other’s minds. “Anxiety” is another short number which sees Cobham messing around again with the space-time continuum, before we launch into “Taurian Matador”, which doesn’t remind me of a matador as such, but is certainly lively and engaging all the same.
And now we have “Stratus”, what is for me the album’s high point. The song/composition begins somewhere in outer space, dominated by computer/android synthesiser (courtesy of Hammer), and Cobham’s frantic two stick calisthenics. Apart from the addictive, funky bass line (Lee Sklar), what this track proves is how adaptable and versatile Tommy Bolin was when it came to genres other than blues and rock. And on here he shines, letting loose some intense and fiery pyrotechnics.
“To the Women in My Life” is all romantic piano, and quite lovely, definitely something you can play for your wife (or maybe some other woman you want to seduce). So too “Le Lis”, another gorgeous instrumental with an exquisite melody, and is one of the best pieces of the album. I’m not sure what the moog arrangement has to do with the song title, but “Snoopy’s Search” is pretty ‘out there’, for the early ‘70s. Probably not quite my cup of tea, but it soon segues into “Red Baron”, a more traditional and ‘jazzy’ composition, notable for its funky groove where Hammer and Bolin complement each other in flawless fashion (and the other guys aren’t too bad either).
I guess my only complaint with the LP is that some of the tunes open with perhaps a little too much hero drumming. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a complex skin solo as much as anyone, but unless you’re a real drum-head, which I’m not, it can get a little distracting, especially after you’ve already heard it a number of times. But apart from this, Spectrum is a diverse, and inventive album overall, where every track keeps you guessing, as well as being an essential purchase for lovers of Jazz Fusion’s golden era.
And for ten dollars, which is what I paid for it, one could do a lot worse.