If 1959 is generally considered jazz’s annus mirabilis, you could make a pretty good case for 1973 as fusion’s apogee with key releases from Mahavishnu, Santana, Zappa and Herbie’s Headhunters. But for sheer energy and wow factor, drum master Cobham’s Spectrum might just trump them all, and he celebrated the classic album with this vigorous go-round of updated classics and new compositions.
In this age of downsizing, cuts and tube strikes (the latter perhaps accounting for a rather punch-drunk crowd), it was strangely reassuring to see that Billy’s kit was as big or bigger than it was during fusion’s bombastic mid-‘70s heyday. And if anything his playing is more impressive now than it has ever been. Along with the extraordinary barrage of single-stroke roles and grace notes, his maturity has brought a deeper sense of groove and shrewder use of dynamics, sometimes even dropping out completely at the outset of an instrumental solo to give breathing (and thinking) space the way Tony Williams used to do with Miles.
Gary Husband would seem the perfect man to update Jan Hammer’s miraculous keyboard playing on the original album and sure enough the Yorkshireman’s pungent Moog solos frequently scared the horses, particularly during a demented ‘Stratus’. Guitarist Dean Brown fared slightly worse in comparison with Spectrum’s brilliantly unpredictable axeman Tommy Bolin, searching in vain for the ‘raunch’ pedal but unfortunately mostly hitting ‘unreconstructed’. And some of the newer compositions were fairly pallid.
But when Cobham tore into epic shuffle ‘Quadrant 4’, the album opener that blew the minds of drummers and music heads back in 1973, you knew jazz/rock couldn’t get much more exciting. And classic funk groove ‘Red Baron’, niftily rearranged with lots of false endings and melodic surprises, nailed Billy’s credentials as one the all-time great groovemasters.