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February 5, 2014 6:07 pm
When drummer Billy Cobham released his first solo album, Spectrum, in 1973, jazz-rock was at something of a crossroads. The Mahavishnu Orchestra, which he co-founded with guitarist John McLaughlin, had just disbanded, ex-employer Miles Davis was becoming ever more cryptic and a multitude of lesser talents were awash with self-indulgence. Cobham’s album tightened up the riffs, beefed up the rock and added funk and Latin flavours.
But, perhaps most importantly, Cobham had perfected a style of drumming that combined jazz fluency with rock power and the discipline of a seasoned studio session musician. Spectrum launched the Panama-born American’s solo career and the thunderous rolls, fiendish riffs and brittle light-touch grooves became a template for jazz-rock fusion.
Cobham periodically returns to his jazz-rock heyday with the guitar-fronted quartet that featured on this opening night of a week-long Ronnie Scott’s residency – part of an ongoing world tour, it was billed as celebrating the 40th year of Spectrum’s release. At this gig the classic tracks came after a raft of band-member originals – “snippets from the band’s history” was how Cobham explained it midway through this engaging full-value set – which made for an interesting comparison between old and new.
The band opened with bassist Ric Fierabracci’s “Spheres of Influence”, a complex structure of shifting grooves, sharp-pointed riffs and changing keys. Next up was a samba with a dissonant edge, followed by a brittle march, then the noirish theme of keyboard player Gary Husband’s “If the Animals Had Guns Too”. The set-piece breaks and contrasting moods, changes in tempo and solo showcases were all in style but the new material had more movement in the middle and more interaction and textural exchange than the role-defined classics.
The grandstand finale reprised tracks from the album, took in a ballad, and ended with guitarist Dean Brown leaping and cavorting over a rocking blues. Cobham, though, remains the power on the throne. He is approaching 70, but his energy and control were unflagging. The rolls thundered and ripped, the grooves were fresh and crisp and each move was marked by a flicked cymbal ping or snare drum tap. As icing on the cake, his three set-piece drum solos were masterclasses of construction and control.
Billy Cobham’s Spectrum 40 are at Ronnie Scott’s until Saturday February 8, ronniescotts.co.uk
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