The ex-Mahavishnu phenom was out to prove he had the drumming and writing chops to stake his own claim with his 1973 solo debut.
By the early 1970s, Billy Cobham had spent time drumming with several legendary jazz artists, including Horace Silver, George Benson, and Milt Jackson. As the art form began to include and feature more electric instrumentation, Cobham helped form the band Dreams with future stars John Abercrombie and Michael and Randy Brecker. He also found himself in Miles Davis’s orbit, contributing to the albums Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson alongside guitar blazer John McLaughlin.
Seeking to create his own music, McLaughlin left Davis’s group, taking Cobham with him to form the fusion ensemble Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was with the Orchestra that Cobham developed his singular drumming voice and paved the way towards a new, more aggressive, and technical style of playing. The sheer intensity of Cobham’s work on The Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1973) set a new standard on the instrument, and the drummer achieved the highest highs of fame within the world of jazz. That flame did indeed burn too brightly, and the original Mahavishnu imploded under the weight of interpersonal conflicts and other factors. But Cobham was just getting started.
In 1973, after signing to Atlantic Records, Cobham delivered his solo debut, the jazz-rock tour de force Spectrum. The album refined the drummer’s unique approach to rhythm, showcased a larger swath of musical styles including a growing emphasis on funk and groove, and highlighted Cobham as a composer of note. Like Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, another seminal fusion masterpiece released the very same month, Spectrum simply changed the game.
Things get off to a pulse-racing start, with a blistering double bass Cobham shuffle and keyboard duet on “Quadrant 4” that’s a full-on assault. Those keys, an integral part of the Spectrum sound, are supplied by Cobham’s ex-Mahavishnu bandmate Jan Hammer, and his wild playing on the album gives it much of its distinctive flavor. Following this raging intro (think “Hot for Teacher” but even hotter), the rest of the musicians, bassist Leland Sklar and guitarist Tommy Bolin, come in with a catchy polyrhythmic melody over a blues chord progression. As if trying to outdo his previous band before putting it far into the rearview, Cobham allows Bolin to rip in a very McLaughlin-esque manner until eventually bringing in a tsunami of drum rolls and cymbals. This was not music for the faint of heart, and this opening grenade of a number was the perfect declaration of independence.
“Searching for the Right Door” is a dynamic but brief melodic drum solo of Cobham’s high-pitched toms and cymbal crashes. Interestingly, it isn’t too showy and is an effective breather after the previous onslaught. It serves as an intro to the album’s title track, a slinky 7/8 groover with Joe Farrell on flute and sax, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, and Ron Carter on acoustic bass. Cobham wastes no time laying down the cleanest snare ghost notes before moving into huge fills and riding his China. This is the kind of odd-time workout Cobham engaged in so fluidly with Mahavishnu, but the horns give the track a lighter spark.
“Anxiety” is another drum solo/interlude, this one of the quicker and more kinetic variety. Cobham works his snare with a beautiful 32nd-note roll while filling in with toms for a marching band drum line vibe, before a lovely decrescendo brings the track to a halt. The electric band returns for “Taurian Matador,” a high-energy fusion romp with some pre-disco hi-hats and double bass mayhem. The guitar and keys spar with each other, trading licks while Cobham keeps time and interjects with dramatic flurries of notes. Dig the way Cobham plays over the outro head with unison drums and well-placed cymbal accents. The whole thing is over in a mere three minutes, but your brain has ingested a wealth of information from each instrument.
An extended atmospheric intro opens “Stratus” before Cobham brings in more machine-gun snare roll madness alongside a synthesizer sequence. The track proper is one of the funkiest things on the album, with a relentless 16th-note bass groove and some deep pocket playing from Cobham. The drummer keeps it almost straight underneath Bolin’s fiery solo, until of course he’s inspired to let loose with over-the-top waves of toms and more China riding. By the track’s end, Cobham is fully warmed up, blowing hard and fast over a vamp with controlled abandon, absolutely no space left unfilled. You can hear Cobham just going for it, and occasionally, as on the album as a whole, there’s minor evidence of the drummer getting caught between ideas, a stutter here and a rim click there. But that’s one of the beautiful things about recordings from this time period, which were made quickly, with real musicians and not a Pro Tools rig in sight. Cobham certainly had the chops, but the bead of sweat made the music live and breathe and be genuinely exciting.
A radio-ready light jazz number, “Le Lis,” has Cobham sharing space with congas supplied by Ray Barretto, and gives way to a quick Moog interlude, “Snoopy’s Search,” before melting into the album closer, the funky street-groove strut “Red Baron.” This melody is another example of Cobham’s polyrhythmic writing, and he plays some outrageous fills at the ends of bars during the top head and later outro. During the keys solo, Hammer and Cobham play cat-and-mouse, obviously relishing in each other’s ears and musicality. This was much closer to the aforementioned Hancock style of electric jazz than the odd times and ethnic flavors of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Cobham was proving that he could really do it all.
In Spectrum’s thirty-seven glorious minutes, Billy Cobham asserted his musical sovereignty and helped vitalize a genre for a coming wave of artists and records. Spectrum topped the Billboard Jazz Album charts and even landed on the Billboard 200 at number 26, a truly incredible achievement for an all-instrumental fusion record. More Cobham-led albums with an assortment of killer players would follow throughout the 1970s, but none had the seismic impact of this extraordinary debut.