STITCHING TOGETHER JAZZ, ROCK AND FUNK

When Miles Davis went electric at the end of the 60s he may not have actually ‘invented’ jazz-rock (or fusion, if you prefer) but he certainly plugged some serious voltage into it. What’s more, the musicians who played on the seminal Miles albums In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970), and Jack Johnson (1971) went off in a shower of sparks, starting musical spot fires with bands and solo work fusing jazz and rock audiences. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett… all were influenced and inspired by that highly charged Miles Davis environment.

Drummer Billy Cobham (b. 1944) appeared on one track of Bitches Brew and played on Jack Johnson before connecting with John McLaughlin to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra. His first solo album was recorded and released while he was still in that troubled but brilliant band and his career has continued prolifically: Mr C has released more than 45 albums as a leader.

And so (drumroll please…) we present, for the edification and enjoyment of Vinyl Connection associates, reviews of the first three Billy Cobham solo albums… (cymbal crash!)

 

SPECTRUM (1973)

Cobham, B SpectrumWhat a launch pad for Billy Cobham’s solo career. This energetic and hugely enjoyable fusion cornerstone opens with the tearing guitar of a young Tommy Bolin (later of Deep Purple) and the propulsive thrust of Billy’s kit. When ‘Quadrant 4’ finishes with a cymbal crash the natural response is ‘Whew!’ There are drum solos sprinkled throughout the album but as these show much light and shade and are mercifully short, even those who shy away from drummer indulgences will find these interludes diverting. Jan Hammer’s keyboard work is varied and supports the jazz-funk-rock grooves effectively. Joe Farrell and Jimmy Owens provide horn breaks and the bass playing by Lee Sklar (or Ron Carter on two tracks) locks in behind the leader’s percussion. There is a timeless positive energy to Spectrum which makes it as enjoyable and relevant now as when it was released in 1973.

Rating

Vision and Innovation: 26/30

Playing and Composition: 28/30

Listener Enjoyment: 28/30

X-Factor [eg: cover, design, reviewer bias] 8/10

Total: 90/100 (or 5 stars)

 

CROSSWINDS (1974)

Cobham, B CrosswindsAfter the tearing rock-jazz of his first solo album, Billy Cobham mellowed out somewhat on his second, with pleasing results. The theme of the album is nature and the increased use of horns – especially the trombone of Garnett Brown – adds a more organic feel. Some comparisons between Crosswinds and Billy’s first solo outing are unavoidable. George Duke provides electric piano and other keyboards with more subtlety than Jan Hammer. Similarly, John Abercrombie’s very tasteful guitar work is rich and interesting if less pyrotechnic than Tommy Bolin’s on Spectrum. Even the leader’s drumming is less aggressive, though no less powerful. Studio effects are employed to add colour, such as the ‘phased’ solo on the ‘Storm’ section of the side-long suite ‘Spanish Moss’. Perhaps there is a stronger funk-feel on this album; certainly ‘The Pleasant Pheasant’ swings it’s feathery ass off. With the Brecker Brothers horns providing propulsion throughout, Crosswinds is a very satisfying and enlivening listen. Could this be a disc that combines jazz, rock and funk successfully? Definitely worth seeking out to form your own opinion.

Rating

Vision & Innovation: 22/30

Playing & Composition: 26/30

Listener Enjoyment: 26/30

X-factor [eg: cover, extras, reviewer bias]: 8/10

Total: 82/100 (or 4 stars)

 

TOTAL ECLIPSE (1974)

BILLY COBHAM - Total EclipseIt is still 1974 and Billy Cobham has turned thirty. To celebrate he released a second fabulous fusion record, Total Eclipse. Whereas the previous album has a ‘sound portrait’ feel, Total Eclipse is much more composed and arranged. It is a more complex album with enhanced textures and an ambitious musical vision. One similarity with Crosswinds is an opening suite. ‘Solarization’ is over 11 minutes in length with five sections. A prominent difference is an early solo by pianist Milcho Leviev… on acoustic piano! The next thing that hits is how John Abercrombie has beefed up his attack. His guitar solo in the ‘Voyage’ section of the suite makes one wonder whether he was stung by the comparisons to Tommy Bolin following his work on Crosswinds – here he is fiery and focussed. His final solo on ‘Moon Germs’ is a ripper.

There are the expected funkier work-outs and even some humour… Billy elbowing out a drum machine on ‘Bandits’. Another longer piece – ‘Sea of Tranquillity’ – dominates side two and contains some nice spacey analogue keyboards before the album concludes percussively with ‘Last Frontier’. To my ears Billy Cobham delivers on his promises here: the album is complex, rocky, funky and very satisfying over repeated listens. When I began this review, I was expecting a solid three or 3 ½ stars, but on reflection it is better than that. Total Eclipse is good entry point for ‘prog’ devotees wishing to sample fusion or for existing jazz-rock fans to recharge their batteries.

Rating

Vision & Innovation: 26/30

Playing & Composition: 28/30

Listener Enjoyment: 28/30

X-Factor [eg. cover, imponderables, reviewer bias]: 8/10

Total: 90/100 (or 5 stars)

 *

The personal bit

Regular readers will know about the suburban shop I worked in for a number of years in the 70s and early 80s (most recently featured in this Tempting piece). But Bentleigh was liberally endowed with music shops – there were no less than four – and one of them sold second-hand records. For a boy on a budget this was good news and well worth the walk from Max Rose Electronics at the east end of the strip, down Centre Road, over the railway line, to Bentleigh Sewing and Records down the mild west end where retail merged back into suburbia.

Sewing and Records. Not the most obvious combo of products and one having very little overlap in its customer base. At the front of the store were closely packed avenues of little tables, each with an electric sewing machine either proudly displayed or hiding shyly under its protective cover. As music buyers wove through the maze of machines they entered a twilight zone of cottons and cassettes before squeezing into the even more tightly packed zone of vinyl.

Just as the record racks were jammed closely together – you almost had to turn sideways to sidle down the narrow pathway to the second-hand bins at the back – so each rack of LPs was full to overflowing with albums. Pop, rock, easy listening… all the expected genres rubbed shoulders in the bins. In addition, one of the specialities of Bentleigh Sewing and Records was obscure jazz and blues. The proprietor, a kind and gentle man named Jim McManus, imported them from the US for a small but fiercely loyal band of pre-war music aficionados.

IMG_3981

Not having much call for coloured cottons or dress-making implements, I went straight for the second-hand LPs. It was in this chaotic rear section that I bought my first long-player (Atomic Rooster, since you ask), found my copy of The Beatles White Album, acquired my first jazz record (Wes Montgomery on Verve) and took a punt on Spectrum, an unknown album by the drummer from an exciting band I’d recently discovered, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

It was hard work going through this disorganised rabble of records but I regularly rolled up my sleeves for the task. So regularly, in fact, that when I proposed to Mr McManus that he could employ me to impose some order on the chaos he actually agreed.

But that’s another story.

21 comments

  1. I only have Spectrum. I picked that up because of the Tommy Bolin/Deep Purple connection. It’s a great record. I think it might be the only jazz album I have. I guess you have to start somewhere…

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    1. Absolutely! Now this is just my opinion, but I reckon for a listener into the heavier end of the rock spectrum, you made an excellent choice. Crosswinds is funkier and Total Eclipse proggier but both are terrific.
      Jeff Beck’s jazz-rock albums are great too (and accessible to a rock fan).

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      1. I’ve heard some Jeff Beck but never got round to investigating him in any depth (other than the Jeff Beck Group albums with Rod Stewart). I’ll be adding some to my ever expanding want-list.

        I did get the Gary Moore solo album Back on the Streets recently. That was way jazzier than I expected and I really enjoyed it. It really reminded me of Spectrum at points.

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        1. I’ll keep an eye-ear open for the Gary Moore; haven’t tracked him in a long time.
          Keeping with the Cobham connection, I’d suggest “There and Back” as a good Jeff Beck album to investigate. “Wired” is excellent too.

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  2. Fantastic reviews, Bruce. As a drummer myself, Cobham has been one of my all-time favorites (how could he not be?) ever since the first time I heard The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds Of Fire” back in high school (that’s 30+ years ago). I’ve got about 15 of his solo albums and all three of the ones covered here are fantastic. Glad you shared your back story on discovering his music. Excellent post, as always.

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    1. Thanks Rich. Yes, Cobham’s the man. I have about a dozen titles but tend to reach for the early albums when I’m thinkin’ Bill.

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  3. Re Cobham: I’m starting with Crosswinds; Spectrum too frantic for me today …
    (Brain is in ‘Ahmad Jamal’ mode)

    Re Bentleigh Sewing and Records – they sold me my first LP: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton.

    Thanks for another excellent post.

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  4. What a brilliant album to open proceedings with! The only Mayall I’ve written about to date was Blues from Laurel Canyon (which included a desperate attempt to summarise the early part of Mr M’s career). Bluesbreakers with EC would be a strong contender for revisitation.

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  5. I have Spectrum. The Red Baron is one of my favorite jazz rock tracks of all time.
    It was because of Spectrum that I also went on to become a huge fan of Tony Williams and drummers like Lenny White and Steve Gadd.
    Nice post. Thanks.

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    1. Absolutely with you on those other musicians. The early Tony Williams is mind-melting, Lenny White was brilliant with Return to Forever (his solo stuff is ok too) and Steve Gadd is one of the most stylish and versatile drummers around.
      I think you’ve helped define tomorrow’s playlist. Thanks!

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      1. Great minds and fools seldom differing and all that! 🙂
        There are a lot more that come to mind if one stretches a bit.
        I discovered Alphonse Mouzon when I began listening to Larry Coryell, and Narada Michael Walden who drummed on Jeff Beck’s early fusion stuff, I think.
        And of course,Vinnie Colaiuta on some of JB’s later stuff.
        Ah…so many fantastic musicians!

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  6. Sewing and Records!!!! LOLOLOLOL….

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    1. It truly was a unique store.
      And I didn’t even mention the bolts of material lounging against the walls, the arsenals of needles (sewing, machine, knitting) and racks of wrinkly sparkly edging stuff that I don’t know the name of. Then there were the buttons…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Enjoying Spectrum … at last.
    PS Mingus again cleared the path for me, this time with ‘jazz experiments’.

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    1. Glad to hear it.
      Curious about the connection between ‘Jazz Experiments’ and ‘Spectrum’.

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  8. There is no logical connection between ‘Spectrum’ and ‘jazz experiments’ but there seems to be both a ladder and a snake leading to/ from the Mingus square of my Braille jazz game board.

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  9. […] the Mahavishnu Orchestra folded, Billy Cobham produced a string of first rate solo albums (covered here) of which this, sadly, is not one. It’s not the fault of poor playing; musicianship is excellent, […]

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  10. After a day of Mahavishnu listening thanks to 1537, I came to your site tonight to see what was what, ending up here. As with many of my guitar hero aficionado peers, I came to Spectrum for the Bolin but ended up listening for the whole package. That said, the only other Cobham I really ever got into were the first two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums (see previous re guitar hero aficionados). I’m thinking I might sample some Total Eclipse tomorrow based on this and see what floats.

    Of course, I especially liked the “personal bit.” Did you ever tell the “another story” about scoring the dream job with Mr. McManus? If not, consider this a non-binding up vote in favor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The other story has never left my consciousness, but is yet to be written. I want to, Vic, I really do. But it goes to a level of self-revelation I’ve thus far avoided. Perhaps the title (which came in a flash while trying – and failing for the second time – to write about Atomic Rooster early this year) might set the scene…

      “Betrayal At Bentleigh Sewing and Records”

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    2. PS. Hope you enjoy ‘Total Eclipse’.

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  11. Yeah kind of the same path. ‘Birds of Fire’ sent me to Billy’s stuff. Devoured it. Always dug drummers and he did it big time. ‘Crosswinds’ was first and away I went. Man do you set off bells when you write about this stuff. All that Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu sent me into Jazz land big time. (Plus the old man turned me onto Coleman Hawkins, Ellington…) All those great drummers that would have influenced Cobham. Good piece Bruce

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