CULT CLASSIC: BILLY COBHAM-MAGIC.

Cult Classic: Billy Cobham-Magic.

By 1977, Panamanian-American jazz and fusion drummer Billy Cobham had only been a solo artist since 1973, but he already accumulated a wealth of experience since his discharge from the US Army in 1968. Soon, he had joined Horace Silver’s Quintet, then became the house drummer at Atlantic Records and a session musician at CTi Records and Kudu Records. All this was good experience for Billy Cobham.

Especially when he cofounded the fusion group Dreams with John Abercrombie and The Brecker Brothers, Michael and Randy. They only released two albums Dreams in 1970 and Imagine My Surprise in 1971. After that, Billy Cobham’s interest in fusion grew when he joined Miles Davis’ band and played on the 1970 classic Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson in 1971. After that, Billy Cobham and guitarist John McLaughlin left Miles Davis employ and cofounded one of the legendary fusion bands, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was relatively short-lived and was together for just three years. However, Billy Cobham was only a member until 1973 only played on their first two studio albums 1971s The Inner Mountain Flame, 1973 Birds Of Flame and the live album Between Nothingness and Eternity which was released in November 1973. By then, Billy Cobham had signed to Atlantic Records and embarked upon a career as a solo artist.

When he released his self-produced debut album Spectrum  on October the ‘1st’ 1973, it was to widespread critical acclaim. Critics noticed the influence of Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra on a genre classic that set a new standard for fusion. Spectrum topped the US Jazz charts and reached number twenty-six in the US Billboard 200. This was the perfect start to Billy Cobham’s solo career.

Following the success of Spectrum, Billy Cobham returned in 1974 with his sophomore album Crosswinds which enjoyed the same critical acclaim, but didn’t replicate the success as his debut. However, Total Eclipse came close later in 1974 when it reached thirty-eight in the US Billboard 200 and twelve in the US R&B charts. By then, Billy Cobham was one of the leading lights of the fusion scene and one of its most successful practitioners.

In 1975, Billy Cobham returned with two more albums including his first live album Shabazz which was recorded in Europe. Later, in 1975 he returned with A Funky Thide Of Sings where his music moved from fusion to jazz funk. However, when Billy Cobham returned with 1976s Life and Times, he had returned to his first love, fusion. This would continue as a new chapter began in the life of Billy Cobham.

After releasing six albums for Atlantic, Billy Cobham’s recording contract had come to an end, and to complicate matters, The Billy Cobham/George Duke Band a quartet which also featured Alphonso Johnson and was no more. It was a relatively short-lived band that released just one the album Live On Tour In Europe, in 1976. However, after its release, Billy Cobham decided to sever all ties with the band and its members. In doing so, this left him free to concentrate on his solo career.

By then, he had been offered a recording contract by CBS who had a stellar and enviable roster of jazz and fusion artists. Given Billy Cobham’s track record, especially during the early days of his career at Atlantic Records, CBS were keen to add him to their roster. He realised that this was the perfect opportunity to rebuild career which had stalled in recent years signed to CBS, and soon, began work on his new album Magic which was the next chapter in Billy Cobham’s career.

Magic.

Having signed to CBS, Billy Cobham was determined to make the most of what was a new start. He needed to kickstart his career after a couple of albums that failed to replicate the commercial success of his earlier albums. Billy Cobham also knew that the executives at CBS were looking for successful albums, when he began work on an Magic, which he hoped would reach the heights of Spectrum and Total Eclipse. If not, he knew his time at CBS could be short-lived that, and that didn’t bare thinking about.

Magic which was Billy Cobham’s seventh album overall, saw the drummer and percussionist write On A Magic Carpet Ride, AC/DC, Leaward Winds, Puffnstuff, “Anteres” The Star and the three cart suite Magic. These tracks were written by Billy Cobham and would be recorded with a band that featured some of the top musicians of the day.

Electric Lady Studios, New York had been booked for the recording of Magic, and Billy Cobham had decided to produce his CBS debut. He was no stranger to production having co-produced Shabazz and A Funky Thide Of Sings. However, this time around, he was taking charge of production on Magic.

It was recorded by a core band featured a rhythm section of drummer and percussionist Billy Cobham, bassist Randy Jackson and guitarist Peter Maunu. They were augmented by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, conga player Sheila Escovedo and her brother Pete Escovedo who played timbales and added vocals on Magic alongside Kathleen Kaan. Meanwhile, Joachim Kühn played piano, Fender Rhodes and synths while Mark Soskin switched between piano, keyboards and synths. When it came to recording the vocals on Puffnstuff, Billy Cobham left his drum kit and stepped up to the microphone. By then, Magic which was being produced by Billy Cobham, was starting to shape and it wasn’t long before the album was ready to be mixed and mastered.

After Magic had been mixed and mastered, CBS scheduled the album’s release for later in 1977. This allowed CBS’ PR department plenty of time to promote Billy Cobham’s new album Magic.

Executives at CBS had been impressed by Magic from the first time they heard the album. It was slick, polished album where all the rough edges had been smoothed away by Billy Cobham who produced the album. This was the fashion circa 1977, as  his all-star band unleash a series of spellbinding performances as they combine fusion, funk and jazz on Magic. 

Magic opens with On A Magic Carpet Ride which features a fleet fingered and sometimes skink piano solo by Billy Cobham that takes centre-stage. He switches to drums and powers this fusion jam along as guitarist Peter Maunu comes close to stealing the shows with lengthy blistering guitar solo. In doing so, he plays his part in a track sets the bar high for the rest of the album. 

Billy Cobham rises to the challenge on AC/DC which is built around a tight Latin rock groove as the rhythm section showcase their considerable skills. Especially guitarist Peter Maunu who again takes centre-stage with a scorching guitar solo. Meanwhile Billy Cobham unleashes his secret weapons…his Octoban drums as the Escovedos add a percussive backdrop while synths and even a clarinet are added to the mix as it continues to build, and Billy Cobham’s comeback continues.

Then the summery and melodic sounding Leaward Winds breezes along with Peter Maunu’s guitar and slinky keyboards playing starring roles during a track veers between jazz and fusion.

Puffnstuff is one of the most complex tracks on Magic, but Billy Cobham’s band cope admirably during this six-minute workout and seamlessly cope with the changes in tempo as they switch between fusion, funk and jazz. Later, Billy Cobham almost raps his anti-drug message before guitarist Peter Maunu steps in and unleashes another blistering solo. He’s without doubt one of the stars not just of Puffnstuff, but of Magic. 

“Anteres” The Star is another track built around a Latin rock groove  which comes courtesy of the rhythm section and the Escovedos’ percussive skills. Meanwhile, the clarinet, Fender Rhodes and Peter Maunu’s guitar all play leading roles during this irresistible track.

Magic was an ambitious three-part suite that lasted just over thirteen minutes, and literally explodes into life with rhythm section driving it along. This allows Peter Maunu’s guitar to enjoy its moment in the sun, while later, Billy Cobham’s thunderous drums match him every step of the way. This gives way to the finger clicking swing section which is followed by (Reflections In The Clouds) where Kathleen Kaan and Pete Escovedo share the lead vocal. They’re accompanied by a piano which later, moves centre-stage before (Magic-Recapitulation) closes the suite and indeed the album.

When Magic was released, the album was well received, especially by the jazz critics who had documented Billy Cobham’s solo career since his 1973 debut Spectrum. Magic which was his seventh album, should’ve been the album that rejuvenated Billy Cobham’s career. Sadly, Magic wasn’t the success that Billy Cobham and CBS had hoped. However, it was hoped that a tour would stimulate interest in the vastly underrated and overlooked album, Magic.

As Billy Cobham embarked upon the tour, he was hoping that it would help sales of his CBS debut Magic. Sadly, the tour wasn’t the success that Billy Cobham and CBS had hoped, and some of the concerts weren’t well received by critics. So much so, that when Billy Cobham reached Minnesota, a decision was made to cut the tour short. This meant that there would be no West Coast leg, and to make matters worse, the live album that Billy Cobham was meant to record in Minneapolis fell through. By then, Billy Cobham must have felt that the world was against him, as nothing seemed to be going to plan. However, Billy Cobham’s luck was about to change.

By 1978, Billy Cobham had released his seventh solo album Magic, which is one of the hidden gems of his back-catalogue. It’s an oft-overlooked album, partly because the polished production style which divided the opinion of many record buyers. However, forty-two years later, and Magic has stood the test of time and showcases the combined and considerable talents of Billy Cobham’s all-star band. This includes guitarist Peter Maunu and keyboardist Mark Soskin who play leading roles on Magic, as Billy Cobham’s band seamlessly switch between and combine musical genres during the eight tracks on the album.

It finds Billy Cobham leading an all-star band who unleashed a series of electrifying performances on Magic, which is an oft-overlooked album. It was his seventh solo album and the one that got away for Billy Cobham. Magic failed to find the audience it deserved and  it was a disappointing way start to  Billy Cobham’s career at CBS.

He only released two more albums during for CBS, Alivemutherforya and BC. Commercial success eluded both albums, and after the release of BC, Billy Cobham parted company with CBS after releasing three albums in two years. It was  a case of what might have been for Billy Cobham who by then, was  regarded as an influential, innovative, inventive and progressive drummer as his cult classic Magic shows. It’s a reminder of the man many jazz critics believe was fusion’s finest drummer Billy Cobham.

Cult Classic: Billy Cobham-Magic.

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