Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” Spectrum, Billy Cobham’s first LP which he had dominant control over, has to this day

been lauded as one of the most import jazzfusion albums along with Weather Report’s I Sing the Body Electric, Bitches Brew era Miles Davis, and Cobham’s previous band Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame. The LP was released in 1973, but fell behind the spotlight as other jazz fusion albums received much more pop culture acclaim. Amongst fans, the most well-known track is “Stratus”. “Stratus” is an instrumental, as is the rest of the album; also it is a wonderful distillation of the albums aesthetic and structure. Split into two parts, the track spans almost ten minutes and is the longest track on the album. Billy Cobham is to this day known as one of the greatest technical drummers of all time. His nearly machine-like ability to manipulate the snare drum stemmed from his career in the Army band following his childhood immigration to the United States from Panama. His precision built his fame, as his frenetic drumming was unspeakably fluid, yet perfectly tight. Previous to his involvement with Mahavishnu Orchestra, Cobham played with Miles Davis. This is likely a big influence for Cobham moving into the seventies, adjusting to the jazz-fusion aesthetic that Davis was growing to love. The album may be attributed to Billy Cobham, but without a carefully selected cast of supporting musicians, Cobham’s driving drum work would be for naught. Billy Cobham assembled several of the most talented musicians of the era, including the Czech synthesizer and electric pianist Jam Hammer who was in Mahavishnu Orchestra with Cobham. Hammer went on to be a pioneering synth player, and would end up composing the theme to the tv show Miami Vice. On guitar, was the twenty-two year old Tommy Bolin, who would join Deep Purple two years after the release of Spectrum and then die of a drug overdose shortly thereafter. Bolin was young and ambitious, hopping from project to project, but the “rock and roll lifestyle” was literally killing him. After hearing the young talent on Spectrum, it

saddens me to think of what could have been. On bass, was Lee Sklar, who has to date played session bass on several thousand albums and for someone who has played bass on an Air Supply album, can play extremely well. This album was released during the apex in popularity of jazz fusion, and there was such a huge number of extremely talented and technically skilled musicians who had been in more formal 60s jazz groups who had the desire to create more psychedelic and experimental sounds, but maintaining the skill and emotion of their roots. “Stratus” begins with a drone. An echoing snare, maybe? This drone pulsates in and out of audibility until it is joined by a soaring, ominous synth and a heavily effected guitar. An arpeggiated synth gurgles and burbles, Bolin’s guitar glows, and Cobham’s snare play fade into the track. This blooms into a full on solo by Cobham with the twinkling arpeggiated synth behind him. Around the third minute of the song, part 1 ends with a moments silence. A brief drum roll in a solitary snare strike propels the group into the main riff of the song, a chugging bass riff (later sampled by Massive Attack for their song, “Safe”) is paired with Cobham’s tight jazz-funk beat, the style of which is derivative of the free drumming of jazz drummers like Elvin Jones, who was one of the first drummers to speed up and slow down the tempo of their drumming to effect the perceived passage of time. The main riff (one of Cobham’s catchiest composed melodies) is a call-and-response between a sharp, lead Moog synth,, followed by a few chords of calmer electric piano response. This framework repeats itself for several bars and then the song enters a refrain wherein all the instruments (with the exception of Cobham) play their notes in unison, a monophony of synth, electric piano, guitar, and bass. At the end of this first refrain, Bolin bursts into his first guitar solo, interplaying with Hammer’s electric piano, eventually his arpeggios become intertwined with the staccato chords of the electric piano. Bolin switches between blues and jazz scales freely. It is notable that when Bolin launches into a high speed solo, so does Cobham, propelling the song into a sort of hyperspeed, switching time signatures

along the way as freely as one would move from one thought to the next in their mind. After a minute and a half of guitar solo, Bolin does not stop, but he does activate a tremolo and chorus effect pedal, launching the song into a higher aesthetic plane, launching into jazz noodling and blues note bends. Due to the fusion nature of the band there are even purely psychedelic moments of Bolin’s guitar work. The solo comes to a somewhat anticlimactic end and we are left with the still chugging bassline and Mr. Cobham, still dutifully keeping the beat. Jan Hammer begins his bassy Moog riff and launches into a rhythmic and playful synth solo, slowly lurching up octave by octave until it reaches a whining crescendo...and then dissolves into a bizarrely out of place (and out of key) arpeggio. While this is not necessarily a jazz characteristic, the uneasy key change is similar to the tension that is created in a lot of jazz music. Hammer returns to the whining soaring synth. Moments later we are back into the main riff of the song with will repeat itself twice and then we venture back into the monophonic refrain. Immediately after the end of the second refrain, the band goes into a repetition of a wandering melody (again monophonic, the instruments all harmonizing) that will be repeated until the end of the song. Billy takes the opportunity to create incredible breaks until the track fades out. The overall structure of “Stratus” parallels a spaceship’s ascent in form and feeling. The first 3 minute section (denoted as B1a in the liner notes), is the spaceship warming up, preparing for launch, the electronic burbling and beeping building and building until *snare hit* and we are suddenly cruising into the stratosphere. Maybe I’ve listened to too much Sun Ra, but the synth heavy jazz fusion always elicits such a visual for me. After the main riff repeats, the solos are rocky turbulence (now, space turbulence isn’t necessarily possible, but for the sake of analogy we’ll say its an asteroid field or something). The closing section is a landing on some distant, funky planet. The overall mood of the song is upbeat, at moments there can be an almost nervous mood to the song especially during the intro where the

arpeggiated synth is wandering in and out of key. The precise playing of the musicians also creates sort of a mechanical or robotic aesthetic The song is highly, highly polished, as is the whole album. The engineer was Ken Scott, who ran the boards for RCA’s Trident Studios, recording David Bowie and Elton John. Previously, he worked for Abbey Road Studios recording The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd. Needless to say, the recording quality was perfect and with such talented performers there is very little criticize about the performance. Hammer and Bolin put on very, very emotional performances. Hammer’s peformance on the Moog synth and electric piano is powerful. He is absolutely up there with Herbie Hancock in regards to his contemporaries, but were he born twenty or thirty years earlier before the popularization of the synthesizer, he would have been a name comparable to Chick Corea or Bill Evans. Bolin’s guitar work is extremely soulful, yet precise. Lee Sklar’s bass playing is workmanlike, not featured prominently enough to stand out too much. Billy Cobham’s drumming, while consistently impressive, lacks a tad of emotion that other jazz drummers are able to convey more easily (Omar Hakim and Art Blakey come to mind). His relentless drumming can be overwhelming at times, and it detracts from the depth of certain parts of the song. “Stratus” is a wonderfully grandiose song which can seem a little overlong when glancing at the track list, but once you are locked into the groove it flies by at a rocket ship like pace. The combination of Cobham’s solid songwriting and his musicians powerful performances result in a wonderful jazzfusion song combining the best elements of jazz, blues, and even experimental rock. The song is also a product of the time, as it would not have been possible to to make the song sound so slick without the studio developments and the much more sophisticated synthesizers of the mid 70s. In future jazz and rock historical retrospectives, Cobham’s work will be viewed as an irreplaceable contribution to the aforementioned genres. - Joe Kalicki

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