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Under Investigation: Billy Cobham's 'Spectrum'

November 6, 2013
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IN MAY OF 1973, WHILE THE LEGENDARY ORIGINAL MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA was beginning to implode, drummer extraordinaire Billy Cobham was busy recording what would become the first solo album to be released by an alumnus of the band. Out the following October, Spectrum, Cobham’s take on what would soon be called “fusion,” was both a funkier and jazzier affair than the first two M.O. albums. In fact, it was almost like two different records in one. Three quarters of the album featured Cobham’s brilliant Mahavishnu bandmate Jan Hammer on piano and synthesizer, a then up-and-coming guitar wunderkind named Tommy Bolin (1951–1976), plus bassist Lee Sklar blazing and grooving through four monstrous Cobham originals (“Quadrant 4,” “Taurian Matador,” “Stratus,” and “Red Baron”), while the other quarter (the title track and “Le Lis”) had a markedly different and jazzier sound courtesy of saxophonist Joe Farrell, Jimmy Owens on trumpet and flugelhorn, guitarist John Tropea, bassist Ron Carter, and percussionist Ray Barretto. Short acoustic and electronic solo drum compositions by Cobham, from melodic to bombastic, separated each track, and served to tie the album’s three distinct elements into one mind-blowing, profoundly inspirational package that changed countless lives and was destined to become a jazz/rock/funk classic long before the f-word (fusion) was coined.

One person who, after hearing the album, experienced an epiphany that significantly altered the course of his career was Jeff Beck. “Spectrum changed my whole musical outlook,” he once explained. “(It) gave me new life at the time, on top of the Mahavishnu records. It represented a whole area that was as exciting to me as when I first heard ‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley. They were so inspirational to me that I started to adopt that type of music. Tommy’s guitar playing on Spectrum is fantastic, while Jan can flatten you with the first few notes.” The album provided the impetus for Beck’s landmark Blow by Blow, Wired, and the formation of a long and fruitful musical alliance with Hammer, which turned out to be a marriage made in heaven. Let’s put Spectrum’s bookend tracks under investigation and discover where it all began.

“EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SIX”

Fact: This bit of studio chatter that preceded Cobham’s two-hit lead-in to Spectrum’s opening track on the original vinyl record has curiously gone missing on the CD. Regardless, the intro to “Quadrant 4” absolutely explodes with an ultra-high-octane improvised duet between Cobham and Hammer that lasts just over a minute and is set to a boogie-shuffle beat so intense it makes “Hot for Teacher” sound like it’s in slowmo. The first time I heard this, I was familiar with Jan’s work, but hadn’t heard Tommy Bolin, and I actually thought it was Bolin dueling with Cobham! Thankfully, no guitarist can play like that!! But we can try…

THE “QUADRANT 4” INTRO

Regarding Cobham’s lead-in on the track, most drummers consider his tom-to-crash hits to be “four” and “one.” This way, the whole intro can be counted straight through in 4/4 (or 8/8 as notated here to keep bar counts down). The only rub is that Hammer also seems to begin with a sixteenth-note pick-up into the downbeat, which pits his lines against the beat. In fact, it’s impossible for me to hear it any other way after all these years, so that’s how I’ve notated it in Ex. 1. (Tip: If you really want to turn it around, move all the notes in Ex. 1 ahead by one eighth-note.)

We’re totally diving into the deep end first, so hang on tight! Hammer begins deceptively by playing C#-to-F# which implies the 5 and root in F#, but he quickly sets up shop in D minor pentatonic territory for three bars, developing an insistent, swinging rhythmic motif, and decorating key notes with half-step trills courtesy of his Mini Moog’s modulation wheel. (These up the ante quite a bit, so consider them optional.) Bar 4 is a great example of how Hammer mixes up pentatonic scales in his lines—G minor following D minor, in this case. He continues by displacing the rhythm and adding E, the 6, to the proceedings in bar 5, before morphing the motif from G pentatonic minor to a Dm6 arpeggio throughout bars 6 and 7. Bar 8 is written in 7/8 to turn the beat around as, to my ears, Hammer and Cobham finally sync up for the duration of the song. Here, Hammer begins with the same pick-up, but almost immediately deviates into an arpeggiated tenth-position G minor run, which he then transposes and develops a fifth higher in seventeenth-position D minor. More signature Hammer-time bends define bar 10, before Hammer begins a dizzying, descending D pentatonic minor sequence that spans bar 11, and targets Ab as the new surprise tonic in bar 12. After a bar of a repetitive Ab-major-based root-2-3-5-3-2 motif (Ab-Bb-C-Eb-C-Bb), Hammer drops a half-step and maintains the same tonality in G for bar 13. His return to some bend-y Ab licks in bar 14 barely gets us through half of Hammer’s amazing solo flight, but it sets up a stable tonality and key for the upcoming head, and Tommy Bolin’s actual entrance. (D’oh!)

MASTERING THE HEAD

At 1:07, Hammer sets up the short Ab7 electric piano vamp shown in Ex. 2a to establish a groove for the guitar-and-synth melody that follows. Bolin and Hammer enter in tandem two 8/8 bars later, with Bolin playing the Ab- pentatonic-major-plus-b3/ F-blues-based, six-bar (12-bar in 4/4) melody as depicted in Ex. 2b, and Hammer playing it an octave higher embellished with occasional harmonies. Play Ex. 2b as written, and then repeat the entire head before moving on to the bridge.

The bridge, shown in Ex. 2c, alludes to Cobham’s opening comment as Bolin and Hammer graft a repetitive four-note motif to eighth-note triplets beginning on the second eighth note. The whole deal is superimposed over the 8/8 shuffle and a shifting Db-to-Cb bass line to create a mind-bending six-against-four polyrhythm that lasts for four bars and sets up a modulation to C# minor for Tommy Bolin’s incendiary solo.

TOMMY TEARS IT UP

The token rocker of the bunch, Bolin nonetheless commences his solo with fearless, Coltrane-like abandon. Following the second bridge, Bolin sustains the last note, cranks the regeneration control on his Maestro Echoplex to the max, and yanks the playback head back and forth to unleash a barrage of signature, time-warped runaway repeats. Now firmly anchored in the key of C# minor, Bolin sidesteps the obvious by starting out in the ninth-position C# blues box, and then quickly veering into jazzier territory by sliding into fourth position and emphasizing extensions like the 9 (D#) and the less-common b9 (D), as illustrated in Ex. 3a. Bolin accomplishes this by superimposing G#- blues-based lines over C#m7 throughout bars 2 through 6. (Tip: Make a note of this cool sub!) Like Hammer, Bolin possessed a drummer’s sense of rhythm, as evidenced in the swinging two-bar call-and-response run on exhibition in Ex. 3b and its syncopated usage of a standard ninth-position C# pentatonic minor box. The same can be said for Ex. 3c, which portrays what I believe to be the first employment of the whammy bar to actually play an extended melody, in this case a simple descending C# pentatonic minor sequence that dissolves into beautiful chaos.

A FUNKIER THIDE OF SINGS

In lieu of the Mahavishnu-esque “Taurian Matador” and relentless heaviosity of “Stratus,” the former of which features Hammer and Bolin trading furious “fours,” and the latter now permanently residing in Beck’s live repertoire, we move now to the more delicate, sultry funk of “Red Baron,” the album’s original closing cut. (Tip: A hidden bonus track, “All 4 One,” has been added to a recent CD reissue.) The simple G-based I7-IV7 groove (G7-C7) in Ex. 4a provides the bed for Ex. 4b’s syncopated delights, beginning with the anticipated octave Gs, and continuing through bar 1 and 2’s root, 2, and b3 moves, and bar 3’s four-againstthree, #4-5-b3-2-root action. (More “six”!) Play Ex. 4b as written, repeat bar 1 and the first three beats of bar 2, and then move on to the unison ensemble riff shown in Ex. 4c to complete the head. This must-know run encapsulates a cleverly syncopated G blues scale, the 2/9 (A) and the #4 (C#), plus a pair of 7-in-the-bass accented triads as Bolin coaxes his last note into sweet feedback. (Tip: For A/G, barre an open-A chord with your first finger and add the G bass on the sixth string with your second finger, and then move it up to eighth position to form Eb/Db.) The boys follow it up with another round of the melody preceding Bolin’s funky-ass solo.

PLAYING IT COOL

Bolin’s solo over the I7-IV7 “Red Baron” vamp is a study in restraint. Played with a clean, straight-into-the-amp Strat tone, and proving once more that guitar greatness lies in the hands, not the gear, Bolin’s elegant opening phrasing pervades the G blues-based moves illustrated in Ex. 5a. (Check out how he mixes straight- and swing-sixteenth-note feels throughout.) Ex. 5b, which picks up where Ex. 5a left off, features more cool, call-and-response phrasing—two sparse measures contrasted by a busy one—before segueing directly to Ex. 5c’s even more laid-back vibe, decorated with delicately pinched harmonics and concluding with another variation of a trademark Bolin move.

I hope that the reverse format of this month’s music examples—i.e., beginning with the most difficult and ending with the simplest—as well as their content will inspire you to develop an ongoing relationship with this magical album. Thanks to Billy, Jan, Lee, and Tommy!

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