Billy Cobham - drums, percussion; Mark Soskin - keyboards; Randy Jackson - bass; Ray Mouton - guitar; Charles Singleton - guitar; Alvin Baptiste - clarinet, saxophone, flute
Anyone who has ever heard Billy Cobham will attest to his virtuosity. Few drummers have ever approached his level of technical proficiency. However, Cobham has always displayed a deep understanding of melody, nuance and structure in addition to rhythm, setting him apart from many of his contemporaries. From the onset of his career as a bandleader, Cobham has shown remarkable insight when choosing who to work with, often collaborating with musicians from both inside and outside the jazz genre. On his first album, he brought in rock guitarist Tommy Bolin, which produced astounding music, resulting in some of the best work of Bolin's entire career. On subsequent recordings, former Blood, Sweat & Tears saxman, Randy Brecker, was prominently featured and the list goes on.
For this 1978 outing, Cobham assembled yet another outstanding band, this time featuring Randy Jackson (then better known as the bass player for Journey, but now a household name as a judge on American Idol), who lays down grooves with a technical ability well beyond his years. Add to this the virtuosity of Mark Soskin on keyboards and two quite different, yet complimentary lead guitarists, Ray Mouton and Charles Singleton, and you have a band featuring some very heavy hitters. The icing on this incredible aggregation is reed and flute man, Alvin Baptiste, who not only contributes greatly to Cobham's music, but also contributes the most outstanding and adventurous composition of the entire set.
The late 1970s were a strange transitional time in the world of jazz/fusion. After the initial creativity in the early to mid-1970s that began with Miles Davis and reached its apex with the work of Mahavishnu Orchestra (of which Cobham was an integral part), jazz musicians began moving away from dense heavier music. What is now referred to as "smooth jazz" was beginning to become fashionable, and groups that were essentially soulless were now becoming popular. Cobham was not immune and evolved along with this to some degree, but was still creating music that was more exciting and adventurous than most during this era.
This set at New York City's Bottom Line, one of several sets recorded by King Biscuit Flower Hour, captures this new lineup shortly after the tour began, when they were truly beginning to gel as a unit. Cobham was promoting his Magic album at the time, so it's no surprise that this material is prominently featured in this set. The set opening "On A Magic Carpet Ride," the lovely nuanced "Leeward Winds" and the encore "Magic" all derive from this album. These tracks display a band creatively responding to each other and reacting to the heat of the moment.
This is displayed best, however, on Alvin Baptiste's composition "Ayajala," which gets the full exploratory treatment. Clocking in at well over half an hour, the spontaneous sparks are flying here, with outstanding solos prominently featured from all involved. Following this lengthy track, Cobham even tells the audience that after two weeks of working on this composition, this was the best performance they had executed thus far.
The "Leeward Winds" that follows brings the intensity level way down for a more introspective piece of music that veers into that "smooth jazz" category, but still retains interest thanks to Baptiste's lovely flute playing. Following a connective funky interlude featuring some amusing clarinet work from Baptiste, this sequence rips into one of Cobham's classics, "Stratus." This version has its moments and Singleton and Mouton both play impressively, but it simply doesn't have the burning edge that Tommy Bolin's guitar provided on the original. If anything, Baptiste and Soskin are really the outstanding soloists here.
Overall, this is a remarkable set with plenty of energy. This recording gives one the chance to venture back in musical history, right before jazz/fusion burned itself out. Many electrifying solos are featured as well as outstanding rhythm section grooves. Needless to say, the drumming is consistently amazing and admirers of technique will be awed by Cobham, who remains a technician without peer.