During the 1970s, fusion jazz was an up and coming sub-genre loved by some and despised by others. While there were a handful of musicians playing around with the idea of combining jazz chops with rock energy, the impetus to go full bore into the maelstrom is generally credited to two albums by Miles Davis – “Bitches Brew” and “A Tribute to Jack Johnson.”
Billy Cobham was one of the drummers contributing to both projects, and he managed to bond with guitarist John McLaughlin during those sessions. That’s how he became the rhythmic pulse of the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra. When the first edition of that band split up, Cobham felt he was ready to deliver “Spectrum,” his first album as a leader.
Flash forward to the present day and that release, arguably Cobham’s most impressive album, is now a healthy 40 years old, and the putative centerpiece of the drummer’s current tour. The band he’s assembled is a crew of extremely talented musicians, including violinist Jerry Goodman, who worked alongside McLaughlin and Cobham in the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The stage for Saturday night’s performance was fairly uncomplicated from a visual standpoint. The percussion kit was large, but compact, efficient in how each drum head and cymbal was placed for easy access. Everything else was unobtrusive, either off toward the sides or low enough on the visual horizon to leave the audience’s sight lines undisturbed.
That bit of staging pretty much foretold the kind of performance that Cobham and his cohorts would deliver. There was plenty of flash but basically it was a tightly controlled style of playing that had everyone taking care of business within the context of the tune. Solos were divided fairly equally, with the music starting and stopping with precision.
Despite the rapid-fire tempos that filled the evening, there seemed to be few times when the energy expended was anything other than rote.
There was plenty of sterling musicianship to applaud, mainly because of the band leader. Cobham is one heck of a drummer, whose lightning-fast stick work takes advantage of the kit’s tonal potential even as his superlative sense of rhythm gives the others a guide to the pocket.
Bassist Ric Fierabracci was Cobham’s able partner in the rhythm section with his smooth, sure-handed playing echoing the lines laid down by Lee Sklar, whose patterns helped lay down the foundation for the original “Spectrum” album. Dean Brown’s guitar playing was fluid and, at times, edgy while Gary Husband’s keyboard playing was competent but, for whatever reason, just didn’t seem to have much bite. Goodman played long, drawn out notes that virtually paralleled what Brown was banging out on his guitar.
The set list began with a ditty called “Mushu Creole Blues” and, along the way, touched on some “Spectrum” material, notably “Stratus” and “Quadrant 4,” but the bulk of it was a mix of tunes written by members of the band with precious little drawn from the album whose 40th anniversary celebration this was supposed to be.
It wasn’t a bad concert, but from my standpoint, it was a bit of unfulfilled potential, a fire that had been banked rather than allowed to shine brilliantly, crackling with heat.