Arguably the fusion era drummer of jazz in the 1970’s (some might argue Alphonse Mouzon, or even still Tony Williams), Billy Cobham gained notoriety in the late 1960s as part of the Horace Silver quintet, and then came the big call from Miles Davis and participation on the seminal ‘Bitches Brew’ album, before then joining the Mahavishnu Orchestra and teaming up again with Miles alumni John McLaughlin. Exciting and heady times for sure. All this work as a sideman meant that when he finally branched out and decided to become a leader in his own right, major record labels were only too willing to oblige and the two out of print vinyl LPs contained here were both on a major, Columbia. The former, from 1977, is the stronger of the two with an interesting band line-up comprising Joachim Kühn on keyboards along with Mark Soskin (the latter would feature with Sonny Rollins) and, interestingly, New Orleans clarinetist Alvin Batiste as well as studio saxophonist extraordinaire, Tom Scott (Joni Mitchell and a whole host of others). While there is nothing particularly outstanding about the music on offer on the first recording, it is enjoyable music nonetheless and indicative of a period in time when jazz was going through both a difficult and transitional period. Even Miles by the mid-1970s had reached a musical dead end, lacking any real direction. Standing out above the rest are, ‘AC/DC’ and the evocative ‘Leaward Winds’. This was also an era when then the elite of musicians tended to record in exotic locations.
The second album, and the more varied, dating from 1978 is immediately striking, however, by virtue of what appears to be a lovely Dutch painting on the cover, and the relationship between the audio and visual world of art is one not lost on other jazz musicians. In fact, upon closer inspection the painting is actually a photo. It follows up on the debut with a not dissimilar line-up, with Mark Soskin once again on board, but with Steve Khan on guitar and Alphonso Johnson (he of Weather Report fame) on electric bass. Key tracks include the percussion heavy ‘Bahama Mama’, a nod to Jaco Pastorius on ‘Some Punk funk’ (‘Punk jazz’ being a Jaco title), while elsewhere there are echoes of the then recent hippy era with a second version of ‘On A Magic Carpet Ride’.
Billy Cobham fully deserves his place among the jazz fusion greats and in this respect is the equal of Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and George Duke, not forgetting Herbie Hancock and Jaco Pastorius, whose talents all flourished during the 1970s. Ten pages of new and detailed notes by Matt Phillips, with another three pages of notes from the original albums help place the music in the wider historical context.