Billy Cobham – Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973)

Heavy duty jazz drumming meets funk from the gods on one of the finest Jazz fusion albums in existence.

Jazz fusion is a pool of musical expression. It winds and bends, blending the supreme with the melodic, the unexpected with the accepted, and the down right ridiculous with the sublime. It was a genre that many got to know during the early 1970s, where talented musicians congregated together and made some truly powerful and epic records, that stand testament to this day. Inspired by the experimentation of traditional Jazz greats such as Miles Davis, and kick started by Larry Coryell and others, this genre blended rock, funk and jazz into one never ending musical experience, characterised by lengthy tracks, spiralling solos, jazz beats for days, and a certain charm that borrowed all of the favourable characteristics from many genres and nurtured it under one name. From Herbie Hancock to Harvey Mason, Willie Mitchell to Bob James, Stanley Clarke to George Duke and Patrice Rushden, the list goes on and on of the many greats who graced the genre.

Billy Cobham sits alongside these greats as perhaps one of the most talented drummers to ever set foot in a recoding studio. His drumming style became well known as a member of the groundbreaking ensemble Mahavishnu Orchestra, who were one of the first to not just blend rock and jazz together but take it in a whole new direction of experimentation. Improvisation was the key to their success and recognition as a key player in the genre. Cobham would take this notion of experimentation and run with it on his debut solo release, ‘Spectrum’. A mind boggling blend of rich funky tones, heavy duty drumming (performed to perfection), and that good old dash of jazz, throwing in curve balls when needed for good measure. Lets take a dip.

Side A starts off with ‘Quadrant’, a unbelievably high tempo drumming vibe, with striking guitars on top. Two instruments at the start define what is to come, it is really something. A distinctive John Bonham vibe to it, the tune breaks down so beautifully, to a real Funkadelic driven groove. It is explicit in its energy, grabbing you by the hands and spinning you down this drain of never ending energy. It truly is a real trip, one to close your eyes to and just lose yourself in this. The next song is split in two, consisting of ‘Searching for the right door’, and the title track. The start of it simply displays Cobham drumming up in tempo and down again. It a delicate link between the first track and the second half of the medley. The title track contains delightful horns and brass, on top of a dense and heavy groove underneath. A gorgeous bass line permeates through the drums, before classy and high octane synths permeate, interchanging with a fantastic soprano sax solo. This just descends into a beautiful jazz chaos, with the sax going off on one and Cobham bringing the heat with his drumming patterns. He lays down this sort of like solo drumming vibe for all these amazing solos to then move off of. What started off as something resembling some form of order just turns a corner and doesn’t look back, and that is the beauty of it all. It all comes through at the end though, as the horns and brass signify one last movement for them all to appreciate. To finish off side A, another medley, consisting of ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Taurian Matador’. Cobham again struts his stuff with a classicque drum solo, that quivers and waves around, a true master of blending all sorts of tempos into one lovely piece of structured chaos. Then comes in the second track, just as energised as you would expect, greeted with a up tempo drum line and synths to match. Before grooving into a layered and funky verse, to then jump back into another break, then grooving back into the verse once again. Solos abound, this time in the form of some strong as hell guitar solos. This seemed to be a particular characteristic of guitar playing in jazz fusion, the speed, the trickery, all seemingly borrowed from the guitar greats of the day. Ritchie Blackmore springs to mind as a potential inspiration. The solos keep coming, the next more aggressive and out there then the last, and they just keep coming. This is a demonstration of the sound, the curation of musicians just vining off of each other to create a product full of life and character.

Side B begins with ‘Stratus’, perhaps Cobham’s most famous work (due to it being sampled by Massive Attack). Rather than jumping into the drums, weird and wonderful synths lightly flicker in the distance, signalling something that is to come. Then, the drums lightly kick in, as the synths gain some traction, with a real sped up key line remaining as Cobham kicks into gear. It is an intro to remember, the drumming going on and on, save for one small pause, it builds and builds and builds and builds. Something very special has to be coming at the end of all of this. Everything fades, and then that beat and bass line kick in. Deep, brooding, funk as shit, it has it all. For the rest of the album, this mellow intro is something to savour, with deep guitar lines playing alongside grooving Moog lines. A musical masterclass, expertly led in by Mr Cobham, a marvel. The groove here is off the chain, cloud 9, a real head bobber. The more spaced out feel here, with less emphasis on the density of instrumentation, means the listener can truly appreciate this work of art for what it is; pure jazz fusion, pure jazz rock, pure jazz funk. The incessant bass line keeps everything together, as the song moves into a more dense tone, with the guitar solo taking centre stage. Up next comes another medley, in the form of ‘To be the Woman in my life’ and ‘Le Lis’. A delicate piano leads this one, a really beautiful excursion into the beatless world of Cobham and his band. Then comes a real downtempo jazz worldie. Delicate in every sense of the word, a continuation of the keys from earlier, with delightful Moog lines and deep pads alongside some gorgeous horns and brass. The tune switches up, but much more delicately, this time its for the keys to shine. Cobham does an excellent job on this record of mediating between the various elements; he lets the guitars shine for one, then horns the other, then keys the other. All the while he is just leading the line, allowing the musicians to bounce off his impeccable grooves.

Finally, comes the medley of ‘Snoopy’s Search’ and ‘Red Baron’. The first tune continues the vibe of the previous track, chilled and mellow, but not without its flavours and character. A real head bobber, the keys once again permeate here with strength. Lovely little lines and pads, aligned with the guitar, make for a truly intricate musical experience. Mastery of all the elements is on show here, all the musicians taking their turn to delight. Then comes the switch up, to something real heavy, with experimental elements coming in strong through the Moog. This is a great final moment of reflection, a display of all things good and holy.

Cobham brought it strong here, on this record. A blend of the heavy, the delicate, and the intricate, all woven and told through a series of transcend tunes that groove on still after a lengthy listen. It is a record that demands continual listens, just to get your head around all the things that make this album so brilliant. And that is what makes great records, in the Endless Grooves opinion. Something that has staying power, something that creates melodies that remain in the mind at all times. Cobham created a world for us to explore, each song displaying a sonic ness that is not quite there at times on other Jazz fusion records. It remains a pinnacle album, not just for the genre, but for the 1970s in general. Take a dip and get your head round some of the most hypnotic and timeless vibes ever created and pressed onto a vinyl.

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