LIVE: Billy Cobham’s Spectrum 40 Band @ The Egg, 8/30/14

Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham

Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Billy Cobham established himself as one of the prime architects of the jazz-rock fusion sound as the drummer with such bands as Dreams (featuring the Brecker Brothers), Miles Davis (on his classic 1970 “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” album) and the high-flying Mahavishnu Orchestra. Melding jazz sensibilities and rock aggression, Cobham struck the perfect balance.

Now 70 years old, does Cobham still have the right stuff? Oh yes, indeed, he does. In concert in front of a nearly packed house at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre recently, he deftly walked the tightrope between explosive power and exacting precision.

He was leading his Spectrum 40 Band, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Spectrum, his groundbreaking 1973 solo album debut, but Cobham wasn’t content to merely throw together a “tribute band” for a routine retrospective run through Spectrum in its entirity. Oh no. In fact, he and the band were nearly a half hour into their show before they launched into their first selection from Spectrum, a muscular, funky strut through “Stratus,” which showcased the thrumming bass pulse of Ric Fierabracci, the angular, glitch ‘n’ pop attack of keyboardist Gary Husband and the seismic guitar freak-out of Dean Brown.

More selections from Spectrum were to come – the dazzling one-two punch of the swinging “Quadrant 4” paired with the funk of the album’s title track closed out the set in dizzying fashion, and the final blues-strutting encore of “Red Baron” left the crowd breathless – but the concert wasn’t really about celebrating Spectrum the album as much as it was about paying homage to the spirit of Spectrum.

Of course, it was Cobham’s drum mastery that drew the crowd, and he didn’t disappoint. He dropped a number of short but mesmerizing drum solos throughout the night – often as interludes tying songs together – and his big, eight-minute solo, the first half of which he played with two sticks in each hand (!), was perfectly jaw-dropping.

But as he pointed out, the band is a collaborative effort, and Cobham allowed each of his bandmates a chance to showcase their compositional skills, as well as their exquisite musical technique. In fact, it was was Fierabracci’s roiling “Sphere of Influence” that set the bar as the opening number, while Husband’s “If Animals Had Guns, Too” flexed the perfect combination of muscle and speed, and Brown’s fuguing “Two Numbers” was a genuine highlight of the night.

Jazz-rock fusion hasn’t had much mainstream exposure in recent years, and it almost seems like some sort of historical relic. But don’t tell that to Billy Cobham. He’s still at the top of his game. And don’t tell that to the crowd who came to see him, either…

Additional Andrzej Pilarczyk photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “He [Cobham] launched ‘Sphere of Influence’ with a roar that subsided (some) into riff waves that peaked with Brown’s hyperactive (physically and musically) arpeggio blasts before sauntering back to the head. ‘Radioactive,’ a breezy, complex-time tune, featured Husband using busy electronics to reshape notes and tones before Brown took his restless shot at the melody and Cobham grabbed and ran with it, then summoned everybody back to the tune’s original stutter-step launching pad. Cobham held the spotlight to introduce the slower, sweeter ‘Heather,’ a lovely, relatively sparse ballad whose plainspoken lyricism felt like a cold one after the hard work of listening through the two earlier riff-storms, or like a Japanese ink-painting of a classic landscape after car chases through big cities. However, Cobham couldn’t resist going up-tempo. As the band soothed, adagio, he played allegro, then presto, but let us down easy at the end. ‘Stratus’ went faster, high-octane funk spiced by Husband at his electro-noisiest and Brown even noisier, but again, Cobham took over by going double-time at the recap. Brown then led in his own ‘Two Numbers,’ playing face to face with Husband while Cobham pushed hard, taking over the vamp at the end before tossing things back to Husband and Brown.”

NOTE: Spectrum 40’s versatile keyboardist Gary Husband can be heard at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton at 7pm tonight (Wednesday, September 17). He’ll be playing drums in the Allan Holdsworth Band. Tickets are $20 in advance; $25 at the door.

Shere of Influence (Ric Fierabracci)
Two Numbers (Dean Brown)
(drum solo)
If the Animals Had Guns, Too (Gary Husband)
Quadant 4 > Spectrum > Quadrant 4
Red Baron

Gary Husband
Gary Husband
Dean Brown and Billy Cobham
Dean Brown and Billy Cobham
Ric Fierabracci
Ric Fierabracci
Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham

Comments are closed.