Interview With Jazz Percussionist Billy Cobham: “Spectrum” Turns 40


My conversation with Billy took place on Thursday, January 19th 2013 in conjunction with his appearance at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Thursday Jan 31st 7 and 9 pm. It aired on KUSP Jan. 29th.  Additional commentary and post production by Eric Berg.

At age 29, drummer Billy Cobham had no idea that his first solo album, “Spectrum” would become a smash jazz-rock fusion hit. The plan had been to just make a record Cobham could use as a calling card for more percussion work as his current band at the time, The Mahavishnu Orchestra was calling it quits.

“Spectrum” was made exactly 40 yrs ago in 1973 and is as vital today as the day it was released. The album was composed by Cobham and recorded in one or two takes per track over two days at Electric Ladyland Studios in New York City. It also was a stunning debut and showcase for keyboardist Jan Hammer and the late guitarist Tommy Bolin.  Bolin’s untimely demise at age 26 created huge cult following that is still going strong today. Session bassist Lee Sklar rounded out the band although on two tracks jazz bassist Ron Carter filled in.

The album kicks off with the thundering “Quadrant 4” with Cobham propelling Jan Hammer to minimoog ectasy as he fires off a barrage of keyboard guitar notes Mahavishnu style until the real guitarist, Bolin steps in and away they go. Sure, mini-moogs and synclaviers may sound dated in this day and age, but that’s only if you let them, so forget that thought and focus on the incredible adrenaline fueled interaction between these four musicians. These guys are on fire.

Cobham’s Four Interludes

In addition to the six main tracks, Cobham composed four short interludes separately attached to the beginning of four songs. Two drum solos and the other two Hammer’s keyboards. The first is the tastefully brief “Searching For the Right Door” that shows in less than 40 seconds of an experimental drum solo that less is often more.  The second “Anxiety” finds Cobham more aggressive and trying out a bit of drum synth. The third piece is “The Women In My Life” composed by Cobham on acoustic piano and exquisitely played here by Hammer. The fourth “Snoopy’s Search” finds Hammer making sc-fi computer noises fading out to Cobham’s drum shots..

Tommy Bolin

The final track is  “Red Baron”, a slow but catchy jazz blues allowing Bolin to rhythmically stretch out with his streamline-smooth slide guitar, tastefully weaving in and out of  Hammer’s percolating electric keyboards while Cobham does the driving.

Audio speaking, “Spectrum” is an extremely clean engineered album with it’s great use of true stereo effects, making it headphone ear candy.  If you’re lucky, maybe you can find the audio dvd of “Spectrum” that was released in 2001 and instantly became a collectors album. Side one is digital stereo but the flip side is remastered in DTS 5.1 surround that will knock your ears off.

Desert Island Disc?

40 years on,“Spectrum” has aged well and needs no face lift. Hat’s off to  Cobham for making this a contender for one of those desert island disc lists. – Eric Berg

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