Billy Cobham

The Atlantic Years, 1973-1978

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Drummer and composer Billy Cobham is one of the great technical innovators that bridged jazz, fusion, and funk. Only fellow kit men Lenny White and Alphonse Mouzon were in his class, but neither was as fine a composer or arranger. In this attractively priced box, Cobham's first seven recordings as a leader are compiled with Inner Conflicts -- issued in 1978 after the drummer's first sojourn with Columbia -- to offer enduring proof of his mastery. His debut, 1973's self-produced Spectrum, is a jazz rock classic whose influence is immeasurable. Its production and accessible, driving melodies are framed inside intense, extremely technical compositions. The band included guitarists Tommy Bolin and John Tropea, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and bassist Lee Sklar, with guest spots from Ron Carter, Joe Farrell, and Ray Barretto. Cobham followed it with two ambitiously composed and arranged albums in 1974: Total Eclipse and Crosswinds. Though neither set achieved the crossover critical frenzy that greeted Spectrum, both have been reappraised in the 21st century as groundbreaking. Guitarist John Abercrombie and the Brecker Brothers played on both albums. Pianist Milcho Leviev played keyboards on Total Eclipse, while George Duke was at the helm on Crosswinds. Shabazz, recorded at the 1974 Montreux Jazz festival and released a year later, offered two new compositions as well as inspired readings of "Taurian Matador" and "Red Baron" from Spectrum. This hard-jamming keyboard-less group showcased Cobham in the company of Abercrombie, bassist Alex Blake, the Breckers, and trombonist Glenn Ferris. A Funky Thide of Sings, also from 1975, was a return to the studio. It offered a new, more intense vision of jazz funk rather than jazz rock, with guitarist John Scofield replacing Abercrombie. Cobham re-enlisted Leviev, the horns from Montreux, Blake, and Traffic's percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah on guitar. The tunes were just as complex in terms of composition, but the grooves were monstrous. For 1976's Life & Times, Cobham pared his band to a quartet, keeping only Scofield, and hiring Doug Rauch and Dawilli Gonga on bass and keyboards, respectively. The compositions were tightly woven knots of fusion and funk with the seams jaggedly exposed to dramatic effect. A European tour with Duke, Scofield, and bassist Alphonso Johnson resulted in The Billy Cobham/George Duke Band: Live on Tour in Europe. The album has some terrific moments but is somewhat uneven. The drummer moved to Columbia for two dates before returning to Atlantic for the final record in this set. Inner Conflicts is a varied, futuristic jazz-funk record that actively embraces disco and Latin rhythms. Johnson and Scofield are core members; guests include the Breckers, Sheila and Pete Escovedo, and Julian Priester. Criticized at the time, it has acquitted itself as visionary thanks to DJs. Each album is newly remastered; some contain alternates, outtakes, and mono-and single mixes. They are individuallly encased in thick, replica cardboard sleeves. Also included is a 56-page booklet with an essay by Pete Riley. The price is affordable, the music essential.

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