This year marks the 40th anniversary of drummer Billy Cobham’s debut LP, Spectrum. Originally released in October 1973 on Atlantic Records, Spectrum – with its pixelated multicolored cover art – is Cobham’s 10-track groundbreaking jazz-fusion masterpiece.
Spectrum was an opportunity for a then 29-year-old Cobham to reinvent his musical identity through both of his bands Mahavishnu Orchestra and Dreams dissolving. The accomplished Panamanian American musician had also performed on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album prior to those band stints.
At that point, the powerful and precise drummer’s music career was at a crossroads. Still, he was determined to earn a living as a professional musician, so he started arranging and composing on Spectrum. The ambitious bandleader, now 69, reiterates how nothing gives him pleasure like performing.
“I was doing my best to have this record as my calling card. I was not at the time hoping to expand my horizons. I had to find another way to offer my services to the public. I needed to keep myself from going under. If I could make ends meet, thank goodness. If I could get a wedding here and there or a dance, I’m good,” says Cobham.
Spectrum was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s famed Electric Lady Studios. The set personified Cobham’s impressive musical range and knack for improvisation. The album’s 30 plus-minute run time featured a prism of the bandleader’s signature trippy drum solos, hypnotizing arena rock guitar riffs, cascading synthesizer melodies, funky conga cadences, smooth horns and mesmerizing extraterrestrial sounds that predated any video game soundtrack.
Cobham states, “At that time, records meant something different to everybody. [Spectrum] had a lot to do with things that I did. At that time, you could find me on Broadway. I would be working with Herbie [Hancock] at The [Village] Vanguard. I’d be in a Latin band because that was my heritage. It was broad thought coming from me day in and day out,” he says.
When talking to Cobham, expect to hear a superlative list of multitalented musicians. Spectrum’s class of session musicians included the late Deep Purple/The James Gang guitarist Tommy Bolin, bassist/composer Leland Sklar and synthesizer player/keyboardist Jan Hammer (famous for the 1985 chart-topping instrumental “Miami Vice Theme”).
Cobham vividly remembers the studio being a free spirited arena and safe haven for collaboration, creativity and experimentation. “It was the society I was working within. I don’t think anybody thought of themselves as major. Being supportive of each other was beyond natural. It was just the way it was. We were working, but we weren’t working. People would just get together to just hear what certain things would sound like,” recalls Cobham.
Cobham, who relocated to Switzerland permanently around 1979, is currently on a world tour to commemorate Spectrum’s legacy. For the first time in decades, the instrumentalist was able to play shows across America. His decision to move, he says, allows him to take his time in making choices about his life.
“I needed to try and think things through. It’s a very slow moving environment. I don’t like to rush things, and it’s turned out to be that place,” says Cobham.
Since its initial release, Spectrum’s musical elements have been sampled by numerous hip hop and pop acts. A humble Cobham is proud that his music has longevity before new generations of musical talent. To this day, he insists that recording a classic album like Spectrum was completely unintentional.
“I’m quite honored that anyone would pick up on any idea that I did. It’s important to remember that the band sounded good, not Billy Cobham. We liked playing as a unit. It’s not about how many notes you play or technically how great you are. On the other hand, if you stand out more than anybody else, then everybody else isn’t as good as you. It’s about the music,” says Cobham.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, a pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.