Spectrum was an album that I had to grow into. And that growth occurred through a specific kind of context as well. Knowing full well that the album was Billy Cobham’s debut as a leader following his departure from the Mahavishnu Orchestra? I was very psyched up to hear this album upon first learning about it a decade or so ago. At the time? My views on progressive instrumentation was caught between the influence of my own likes and the happiness of others. The precision style of what I call “speed fusion” put me off to some degree at the time because of that ambiguity.
It was growth from both within and without myself that led to appreciating Spectrum more. “Quadrant 4” is basically a blues based combination of the jazz fusion synthesizer playing of Jan Hammer with Cobham and Tommy Bolin giving the song a shuffling hard rock theatrics about the general atmosphere of the song. “Searching For The Right Door” begins as a grandly percussive drum solo before going into a more funk oriented stomp for the title song. “Anxiety” similarly goes into the uptempo,rhythm guitar based uptempo funk/fusion of “Taurian Matador”.
“Stratus” is a tremendous near 10 minute number that takes the progressive drum solo into a rhythm guitar/electric piano led funk storm- before returning to a full band version of that huge intro sound yet again. “Le Sis” has another mellow electric piano based jazz/funk groove about it with a strong melody and slippery synth solo. “Red Baron” is still my favorite number here-with it’s slow stomping groove keeping itself funky in the James Brown tradition. This concludes the blend of jazz rock soloing and jazz funk grooves that pepper themselves across the album.
One of the things that I’ll bet that suits me more listening to this album today? It’s very much created with musicians in mind. Melody and song structure takes an almost total aside for instrumental ability. As well as extremely complex changes in rhythm. As casual listening? It might not work as well. It is an album you have to invest in,study it a bit. Each song encompasses so many contrasting themes? It’s not even something you can dance to. Yet if your in just the right mood? This is seriously addictive,not to mention extremely well played on,jazz/funk/fusion at it’s finest.
John Abercrombie picked up his first guitar at age 14 in his native Port Chester,New York. He attended the Berklee School Of Music in the early to mid 60’s. He played with a group of fellow students at Paul Mall’s Jazz Workshop, a local my father often talked about seeing some acts at during his 70’s trips to Boston. This resulted in him being discovered by organist Johnny Hammond,who had him join his group for a time. After a brief time attending Northern Texas State University, Abercrombie returned to New York to become one of the most renowned jazz session guitarists in the city.
Abercrombie went on to recording as a leader on the German ECM label. This is one of those jazz labels that actually has its own particular sound. Primarily a jazz label, the artists on ECM didn’t want to focus too much on any other musical genre they adopted into their music. But more on their playing ability and their own sound. Abercrombie made his debut album for the label in 1974. It featured him in a trio with drummer Jack DeJohnette and fusion pianist/organist/synthesizer pioneer Jan Hammer. The album was called Timeless. And the title track is one of those songs that speaks a thousands words.
Hammer starts off the song with a sustained,deep synth bass tone. Than his organ comes in with its own kind of sunny sustain. Into this mix comes DeJohnette’s drums, which come through with some ascending hi hat and cymbal brushes creating a dreamy rhythmic atmosphere. Abercrombie’s guitar, playing a number of bluesy and faster gypsy jazz style licks, is complimented by Hammer’s synth bass changing harmonically to accommodate it. Around the bridge of the song, the drums gain a heavier power with Hammer’s synths rocking more. Then the song fades into its original theme as it fades.
“Timeless” is a nearly 12 minute song that’s based heavily around Abercrombie’s soloing. His style was light and understated-very much in the Miles Davis/Ahmad Jamal school. Yet he takes some very fast and elaborate runs too. Jack DeJohnette’s serves the soloing amazingly. While Jan Hammer provides that critical extra texture on his organ and synth. Its big,small,progressive and ambient all at once. Its also the first time hearing this song-after the passing the album over many times. John Abercrombie has sadly passed away this week at the age of 72. And this is a beautiful way to remember his music.
Jan Hammer is known by most American’s as a keyboardist who scored many films and TV shows-namely the iconic theme to Miami Vice. Interestingly,the unique sound of that particular theme song gave an indication just what sort of musician Hammer was. Starting his musical education at university in his home city of Prague,he migrated to US in 1968 with a scholarship at Boston’s Berklee following the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. A couple of years after that,he was the keyboard player of the iconic fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra-led by John McLaughlin.
After leaving the band in 1973, Hammer formed a new band called The Jan Hammer Group. This included violinist Steve Kindler,drummer and vocalist Tony Smith and bassist/vocalist Fernando Saunders. They released two masterful albums in 1976 and 77 with Oh Yeah? and Melodies. Both had a sound that foreshadowed the most industrial end of new wave influenced jazz funk. Especially with Hammer’s custom Oberheim/ Moog synthesizer combination which had a rock guitar like tone. One of my favorite songs form the first of these to albums is the tune “One To One”.
A 20 note bar of round toned Moog bass gets the song started. Tony Smith’s drums joins in after that-following up David Earle Johnson’s congas. When Smith’s lead vocals come on,Hammer’s Fender Rhodes plays a counter melody to the Moog bass. The Oberheim synth orchestration comes to play on the refrains and the little bridges leading up to them. On the main bridges of the song,Hammer solos on his guitar synthesizer. After a small instrumental part near the end of the song, the Oberheim string synths guide a totally new vocal segment from Smith before themselves closing out the song afterwards.
“One To One” is a very strong mid 70’s entry for the Jan Hammer Group,and they had many such songs during this time. Compositionally, this song could easily stand up to the sound and melodies in Stevie Wonder’s funk numbers during that era. Also the type of progressive,cinematic orchestration of Hammer’s 80’s TV scoring work is very much present here. This also served as a prototype for the sound Hammer and this group would bring to Jeff Beck over the next few years. So its a song that showcases extremely strong writing and composing on one of the most elaborate jazz/funk numbers of its day.