Anyone still blasting out Fusion FM as they drive around Liberty City will be familiar with the futuristic ambiance of ‘Stratus’. From its progressive opening to its funky keyboard sounds, this was Grand Theft Auto IV at its finest. However, even though it delighted GTA players and shot straight to the No.1 spot on the jazz album charts, ‘Spectrum’, and its forward thinking soundscapes never get the recognition that comes so easily to similar works like Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’.
After recording the left channel drums on ‘Bitches Brew’ bonus track ‘Feio’, Cobham went on tour with the man himself, eventually leaving to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughin. Finishing on his 29th birthday, ‘Spectrum’ was recorded in New York on the 16th of May 1973. Cobham enlisted the work of ‘Miami Vice’ composer and long term friend Jan Hammer to provide the delicate keyboard sounds throughout the album, as well as soon-to-be Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin and prominent session bassist Lee Skylar.
It is Cobham’s drumming, however, that gels the piece together. From the opening seconds of the drum/guitar solo of ‘Quadrant’ we can tell this is a drummer’s album- the kit is unusually high in the mix, with a complex shuffle rhythm being provided by speedy double bass pedals. It isn’t pretentious though, as the oh-so-catchy melody line captures us straight away. Besides, it’s followed by a drum solo anyway. One which showcases both Cobham’s skill, and Ken Scott’s excellent mixing, who ‘treated [the drums] in exactly the same way as [he] recorded every other drummer, just using more mics’. The title track is a beautiful example of just what Cobham can do. Completed in no more than two takes, the tightness between Cobham’s rhythm section and the lead players he brought in for this more adventurous number is astonishing.
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A much more restrained drum solo (‘Anxiety’) follows, segueing into the excellently named ‘Taurian Matador’ to provide a funky step into jazz/rock fusion with battling solos permeating Cobham’s flurry of assaulting rhythms. Then comes ‘Stratus’, the ultimate track for jazz loving GTA fans, it is the standout track on the album, and one of Cobham’s career highlights. As everything is seeming out of control towards the end, we fade out and into a majestic piano solo. It could easily be the sound track to any film, yet it is dedicated ‘To The Woman In My Life’, but is somewhat unexpectedly the only track on the album not to feature Cobham himself.
The album wraps up with the hugely ahead of its time ‘Le Lis’ and ‘Red Baron’, with the latter providing arguably the most underappreciated chordal vamp of all time and a very interesting rhythmic figure heard during the head motif. It’s slow build and delicate fade out is the perfect way to end this seminal album.
Billy Cobham continues to tour and record, even at 73 years young.
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