Billy Cobham: drums, percussion
Tommy Bolin: guitar
Jan Hammer: piano, synthesizer
Lee Sklar: bass
Ron Carter: acoustic bass
Jimmy Owens: flugelhorn
Joe Farrell: flute, saxophones
Ray Barretto: congas
John Tropea: guitar (on “Le Lis”)
1. Quadrant 4
2a. Searching for the Right Door
3b. Taurian Matador
5a. To The Women In My Life
5b. Le Lis
6a. Snoopy's Search
6b. Red Baron
When former Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham released the extraordinary Spectrum album in 1973 it had the immediate and profound effect of moving the burgeoning jazz-rock fusion movement into the mainstream. Jazz had started to move away from its traditional foundations with recordings such as Miles Davis’ 1969 album Bitches Brew with John McLaughlin on guitar. McLaughlin then started making waves with Cobham on drums and Jan Hammer on keyboards in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. At the same time, rock music was maturing and becoming more sophisticated.
Spectrum was the album that presented jazz and funk in a form that young rock record buyers could immediately relate to. The door was thrown open for other fusion acts such as Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, as well as Alphonse Mouzon and Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House. On the rock side, after hearing Spectrum guitar superstar Jeff Beck almost immediately went into an intense fusion foray that lasted for many years. Today, as then, Spectrum looms over the rest with it’s incredible blend of chops, power and hooks.
A large part of why Spectrum works so well has to do with Cobham’s choice of Tommy Bolin for the guitar spot. John McLaughlin is rightfully considered to be one of the best guitarists in history, but Tommy’s electric tone was consistently superior, dripping with danger, sex and gut-level impact. Although not as much of a technically studied player as McLaughlin, Tommy still had immense and authoritative technical ability and hung tight to and charged ahead of everything that Cobham’s band of seasoned professionals could throw at him. Throughout the rest of era of fusion’s popularity, heavyweight jazz players would be looking for guitarists who could rock out over funky jazz grooves, in a direct effort to replicate Tommy.
Cobham had first heard Tommy when he was playing with Zephyr at a festival that also had Cobham’s band Dreams on the bill. He then met Tommy in person for the first time on a Jeremy Steig session in early 1971 at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. Tommy had been in town since September of 1970 recording the Going Back to Colorado album with Zephyr at Electric Lady, and was quickly meeting and jamming with some of the names in jazz. The Steig session included a version of Jan Hammer’s “Sister Andrea,” and included Jeremy Steig (flute), Tommy (guitar), Jan Hammer (keys), Gene Perla (bass) and Cobham, who had been recommended for the session by Hammer, on drums. The version that resulted appears on Tommy Bolin: From the Archives Vol. I, and impressed Cobham immensely. Soon after the session Tommy would soon return to Colorado and form Energy, but would be called in to work on Spectrum in 1973.
Jan Hammer had arrived in Boston in 1968 from his native Czechoslovakia. After completing studies at Berklee and playing for a year with jazz great Sarah Vaughan, he moved to lower Manhattan in 1970 and was soon involved in the intense New York Jazz scene. Tommy Bolin had caught Hammer’s ear upon hearing tapes that flautist Jeremy Steig was bringing back from Colorado, preceding the session for “Sister Andrea.” His musical sparring with Tommy is an integral part of the most exciting moments on Spectrum, playing hot licks in call and response, driving each other higher.
The “Sister Andrea” session impressed Cobham and Jammer, but they were forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin at the time, and Tommy returned to Colorado and formed Energy. Cobham stayed with Mahavishnu until early 1973, coinciding with Tommy leaving Energy. Cobham quickly moved to make a solo album and offered the guitar position to Tommy.
The sessions for Spectrum began with one day of rehearsals, then all the tracks were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York City on May 14 and 15, 1973, except “Le Lis” (with John Tropea on guitar) and “Spectrum” which were recorded on May 16. What is heard on the album is almost entirely live without overdubs. Tommy plays all the guitar except “Le Lis,” which has John Tropea on guitar.
Cobham’s ideas going into the album were to simplify the material compared to what he had been playing in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, material that could be enjoyed more directly rather than requiring analytical dissection. The musicians involved were used to reading charts, except for Tommy. Though he didn’t read music Tommy had played lots of jazz standards and progressive jazz during his learning days and especially in Zephyr, so he understood the form well. His phenomenal ear also let him quickly pick up how the material worked, and since the requirement was for him to improvise rock solos there was no problem.
Where a more traditional jazz guitarist would have played flurries of complex lines with mathematical intentions and dizzying arrays of dissonant “out” passages, Tommy laid out raw fire with precision and authority. The chops were there, but he was looking for a smile from your girlfriend too. The style was called jazz-rock fusion, and Tommy was undeniably the godfather of the rock side of it.
Spectrum was released in October, 1973, and immediately hit the music industry like a storm with impressive sales and influential impact on musicians in both jazz and rock. While much of the music of that period has gathered some dust and in some cases sounds wildly out of date, Spectrum transcends its time and is still as impressive to listen to as it was on the day of it’s release. The bass line for “Stratus,” for example, was sampled by Massive Attack for "Safe" from their hit 1991 album Blue Lines.
After the Tommy completed the sessions he returned to Colorado, but his reputation was growing by the day as word about Spectrum got around, and he was soon offered the guitar spot in the James Gang, and established rock band that offered much needed financial relief. Jan Hammer would work again with Tommy, this time on Teaser.
Copyright ©2005 John Herdt.