Billy Cobham's Spectrum 40 band delights eager jazz fans at the Palladium Theater Friday
Sometimes, being a contemporary jazz fan in Tampa Bay area can feel like wandering in the desert like a nomad.
Appearances by ace, big-name players are rare; a sign of how much the genre struggles locally, despite the passionate support of a devoted fan base.
All of this helps explain why drummer Billy Cobham and his band received a hero’s welcome when they touched down at the Palladium Theater Friday for a powerhouse performance of tunes from his landmark Spectrum album – now 40 years old.
His band contained some of the finest players in contemporary jazz and the New York sessions scene, highlighting guitar player Dean Brown, a longtime studio ace who effortlessly powered every song with imaginative rhythm playing and soaring solos. Known for funky, kinetic performances with artists ranging from David Sanborn and Eric Clapton to Roberta Flack and Bob James, Brown’s expert style melded the ferocity of rock with the creativity and melodic complexity of jazz, spiced with his own flashy eccentric style.
That description could extend to the entire band, which also included Gary Husband on keyboards, adroitly handling parts played by synthesizer master Jan Hammer on the original record. Fans might recognize Husband more from his own stints behind a drumkit, including gigs with fusion guitar god Allan Holdsworth and British jazz funksters Level 42.
But those unaware of his drumming past would have no idea he played another axe; Husband owned the complex and demanding keyboard parts underpinning the material, often dueting with Brown in matching, soaring melodies the way Hammer and guitarist Tommy Bolin sparred on the original Spectrum album.
Seated behind a massive drumkit with two bass drums, a sprinkling of electronic pads and an array of tomtoms, Cobham provided muscular, percolating rhythms with a power that matched his athletic physique. At age 69, he’s choosing his moments to shine more carefully, alternating funky backbeats and in your face grooves with explosive runs across his drumkit and the occasional solo moments.
The show Friday was the first of 17 dates the band has scheduled across the country – the band spent several days rehearsing in the Palladium before the show – which helped explain why some moments felt so fresh, as if the band was discovering the arrangements while playing them.
Cobham stressed at the beginning of the show that the performance would balance new material from each of them with some of the better-known cuts from Spectrum, and that even their renditions of the songs would be different, reflecting the sensibilities and approaches on the musicians playing them now.
As he explained during my interview with him a few weeks ago, that’s an approach he learned from playing with Miles Davis; don’t force the musicians to play the way you want, just hire guys who naturally play what the music needs.
On Friday, that translated into long jams featuring recognizable parts of tunes from Spectrum such as the double bass drum-fueled rock boogie Quadrant 4, the supple groove Stratus and the soul-tinged, ambling Red Baron. In each case, the band found new sonic corners of the song to explore, with bassist Rick Fierabracci contributing spot on plucked solo and chunky chordal variations during Red Baron.
In the 40 years since Spectrum helped define the jazz fusion genre, artists ranging from Marcus Miller to Jeff Beck have covered some of its standout tunes. But on Friday, a worshipful crowd in St. Petersburg got to hear the master himself bring the songs to new life, along with material from some of his fellow players onstage, which he urged the audience to purchase afterwards.
“It’s the only really sincere form of communication I know of,” Cobham told the crowd of their musical interactions. Later, he noted, “We are the record company, what you see here. So if you like it, please buy more.”
As shakedown cruises go, Friday's Spectrum 40 show was one of the most enjoyable around – made possible by an expert band meeting a crowd well aware that wonders like this don’t come around our neighborhood nearly enough.