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‘Spectrum’: The Story Behind Billy Cobham’s Kaleidoscopic Jazz-Rock Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Spectrum’: The Story Behind Billy Cobham’s Kaleidoscopic Jazz-Rock Album

Billy Cobham’s debut album, ‘Spectrum’, made the drummer a solo star after leaving the jazz-rock supergroup Mahavishnu Orchestra.

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Dwarfed behind his mountainous drum kit, which included two bass drums, eight assorted tom-toms, shimmering clouds of cymbals and a huge hanging gong, the hard-hitting drummer Billy Cobham brought a jaw-dropping sense of drama and high-decibel spectacle to the jazz-rock-fusion scene of the early 70s. He’d been part of Mahavishnu Orchestra since their formation, in 1971, but after launching his solo career in 1973, with his debut album, Spectrum, Cobham continued to expand his sound – and his status – as one of the best jazz musicians of the decade.

Listen to ‘Spectrum’ here.

“I decided I needed to make a record”
Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, Cobham started drumming as a teenager and, after being discharged from the US Army in 1968 – where he honed his skills playing in a military band – he began to make his mark on the New York City jazz scene, initially with pianist Horace Silver’s band. Cobham’s rapid ascent into the elite echelon of North America’s top jazz drummers put him on the radar of Miles Davis, who recruited Cobham to play on the album A Tribute To Jack Johnson in 1971. Such endorsement quickly led Cobham to become an in-demand session musician, particularly at producer Creed Taylor’s jazz label, CTI, where he played on noteworthy albums by Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard and George Benson.

It was working with Davis that brought Cobham into the orbit of the progressive British guitarist John McLaughlin; he and Cobham discovered a musical affinity that led them to join forces and form Mahavishnu Orchestra, a groundbreaking band that fused jazz improv with rock dynamics and loud amplification. Etching the blueprint for what became known as jazz-rock or fusion, Mahavishnu Orchestra were huge in the US but, at the pinnacle of their fame, in 1973, suffered an acrimonious break-up.

However, the group had made Cobham a star and, eager to continue his career’s upward trajectory, he looked for a way to maintain his musical momentum. “I decided I needed to make a record,” the drummer told this writer in 2015. “So, I went to the management of Mahavishnu and asked if they would give me a hand in finding me a label.”

“Billy wanted to get some of his own material out there”

The group’s manager, Nat Weiss, put Cobham in touch with Mark Myerson, then head of A&R at Atlantic Records. “He was an interesting individual whom I never met before but who was quite aware of me,” said Cobham of the Atlantic executive. “He had some clout to sign some artists and gave me a shot.”

The label gave Cobham a $35,000 budget to make an album, and trusted the drummer enough to allow him to produce his debut on his own. “I was absolutely petrified but I did it out of necessity,” Cobham revealed in 2015, though he was astute enough to bring in an experienced studio hand, the noted British engineer Ken Scott, with whom he had worked with on the Mahavishnu Orchestra albums Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire.

According to Scott, Cobham had been frustrated – just as several other members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra had been – at being unable to contribute material or get a writing credit on the band’s albums, and he saw making a solo album as an opportunity for much-needed self-expression. “Billy wanted to get some of his own material out there, so when we went in and started to do his solo projects, he got that out of his system,” recalled Scott of the Spectrum album sessions.

“The people surrounding me were some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever worked with”

Cobham made some demos of tracks he’d written and then hand-picked the musicians he thought could bring them to life, calling on the prolific session bassist Leland “Lee” Sklar, whose credits ranged from folk troubadour James Taylor to country-rock queen Linda Ronstadt; guitarist Tommy Bolin (who’d just joined The James Gang and would later depart to join heavy rockers Deep Purple); and ex-Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer.

Also making brief but telling contributions to what became Spectrum were trumpeter Jimmy Owens, double bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist/flautist Joe Farrell. “I just chose them based on instinct to make sure that the people I had surrounding me were some of the greatest musicians that I’ve ever worked with or respected in my life,” explained Cobham. “They were people whom I could trust and would do what I asked them to do.”

Spectrum’s basic tracks were cut in New York during three days in May 1973, at Jimi Hendrix’s famous Electric Ladyland studio. Cobham made sure the band were well prepared, enabling them to nail the tunes in just one or two takes. “If you pick the right people and you prepare the music with the right ingredients and everybody has a mutual respect for each other, then the chances are that you’re going to come up with something that you can stand behind,” Cobham told his author, revealing his pride in the music he’d created for his debut album.

“What is life but a spectrum and what it music but life itself”

With the recording sessions completed to his satisfaction, Cobham then flew to London, where the tracks were mixed at Trident Studios, a facility he was familiar with from his time in Mahavishnu Orchestra. After a couple of days at Trident, Cobham’s debut album was finished. He decided to call it Spectrum, which he explained via a quote on the album’s back cover: “What is life but a spectrum and what is music but life itself,” he wrote.

The swiftness of Spectrum’s birth surprised Cobham’s manager, who was expecting his charge – a novice bandleader and producer – to mess up. “He wasn’t expecting to get a phone call from me except if there was a problem,” recalled Cobham in 2015. “I said, ‘Hey, Nat, how’re you doing?’ He said, ‘OK, what’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Nothing, I’m home.’ He said, ‘Why, what happened?’ I said: ‘I made a record, it’s done.’ And then there was silence.”

Not only had Cobham made his debut album without any fuss or hiccups but he had made a healthy financial profit, too. “I thought if I’m prepared properly then I’m sure I can make a record for 20 or 30 grand and, as it turned out, I made Spectrum for 22,000 bucks and I kept the rest for myself,” he laughed.

“I feel very comfortable with the fact that it’s done more than a million sales”

A kaleidoscopic array of sounds, Spectrum opened with Quadrant 4, whose intro of Cobham’s thundering drums jousting with Hammer’s wild synth lines eventually evolved into a tune defined by a catchy bebop-tinged riff over a swinging backbeat.

Searching For The Right Door opened with a Cobham drum solo, though its inherent subtlety belied the drummer’s reputation as a hard-hitting kit pulveriser. The short piece led into Spectrum’s title track, a funky fusion cut featuring the horn work of Farrell and Owens over a groove driven by Ron Carter’s rubbery acoustic bass.

Cobham then served up a more febrile drum solo with Anxiety, a short interlude that paved the way for a bullish uptempo track, Taurian Matador, characterised by gnarly synth and guitar lines. It was followed by spacey sound effects that marked the beginning of Stratus, on which Cobham’s frenetic drums initially battle with Hammer’s bubbling, futuristic synth noises. But at just over three minutes into the track, a groove begins to solidify thanks to Leland Sklar’s churning bass line and Cobham’s funky beat.

The drummer sat out the brief solo piano fragment To The Women In My Life, allowing Jan Hammer to take centre stage, but was back behind his oversized kit on Le Lis, a funky soul-jazz number that featured guitarist John Tropea and a cameo by flautist Joe Farrell.

Spectrum closed with Snoopy’s Search – a brief collage of layered synth sounds played by Jan Hammer – which dovetailed into a laidback jazz-funk groove called Red Baron. As both those tunes’ titles suggested, they were inspired by Charles M Schultz’s popular, long-running comic strip turned TV cartoon Peanuts, particularly one of its central characters, a beagle dog called Snoopy, who often fantasised about being in a dog fight with a German World War I fighter ace, The Red Baron.

“Many people have told me it’s their favourite record”

Atlantic released an edited, much shorter version of Stratus – which dove straight into the tune’s sinewy main groove – as a single for radio promotion. It helped get Spectrum noticed and, when it was released, on 1 October 1973, the album topped the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. It also caught the ear of mainstream audiences, reaching No.26 in the Billboard 200, North America’s barometer of best-selling rock and pop albums.

Buoyed by his success, Billy Cobham followed Spectrum with Crosswinds in 1974. Though it was a less successful record, the drummer stayed with Atlantic for another four albums. Jazz-rock and fusion’s popularity may have waned after the 70s but, for the next 40 years, Cobham, who has lived in Switzerland since the mid-80s, continued to tour and make records, both as a leader and sideman.

Considered one of the best Atlantic Records jazz albums, Spectrum hasn’t defined Cobham’s wide-ranging career, but it has nevertheless played an important role in gaining the drummer recognition beyond the jazz world. After the demise of the jazz-rock era, interest in the album was revived in 1990, when the Bristol trip-hop group Massive Attack famously sampled and looped Stratus’ rumbling bass and drum groove on their hit single, Safe From Harm. Further proof of the track’s longevity is evidenced by its appearance in the 2008 video game Grand Theft Auto IV and its adoption by Prince, who often performed it live in concert through the 2000s and 2010s. At the time of writing, two cuts from Spectrum – Red Baron and Stratus – are Cobham’s two most popular tracks on the streaming app Spotify.

Over four decades on from its release, Cobham was not afraid to acknowledge how important Spectrum was to his career. “It has been around for a long, long time and many people have told me it’s their favourite record,” he said, adding, with a laugh: “I feel very comfortable with the fact that it’s done more than a million sales.”

Find out where ‘Spectrum’ ranks among the best Atlantic Records jazz albums.

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