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Billy Cobham - Crosswinds album review

Superior grooves on storming second solo album

For all their brilliance and the mass adulation they attracted, life in The Mahavishnu Orchestra was not without its frustrations. For example, unless you were John McLaughlin, it was well-nigh impossible to get one of your compositions played on an album. Though still a member of the band, Cobham’s 1973 debut Spectrum showed he was more than capable of penning a few tunes. However, Crosswinds, recorded the same year but released in 1974, shows him extending his range and scope as a composer and arranger.

Beautifully presented on this new high-quality sounding vinyl reissue, the side-long track, Spanish Moss – A Sound Portrait was inspired by time spent in California’s Big Sur. Rugged themes, breezy contributions from Garnett Brown and Randy Brecker, and a stormy drum solo, enhanced by co-producer Ken Scott, all suggest an impressionistic tone poem of nature and the elements. However, it’s more akin to individual sketches rather than the fully developed representation it perhaps claims to be.

Cobham believed this album was about the need to find himself. The reflective ballad Heather, written after a visit to Hiroshima during a Mahavishnu tour, in particular represents a still point of clarity for its composer. Michael Brecker delivers one of his most emotionally articulate solos thanks largely to the framing of Cobham’s yearning chords, delicately nuanced here by George Duke. Eschewing any of the flash or panache usually associated with players of this pedigree, sometimes what truly counts is not what you’ve got but how you use it.

The extent to which this period of Cobham’s music has been sampled and repurposed gives the album a remarkably contemporary feel and resonance. Indeed, the title track, with John Abercrombie’s intense, finely-controlled guitar break, could easily be mistaken for the latest Snarky Puppy release. Unfairly overshadowed by Spectrum’s commercial success, Crosswinds stands out as a powerfully expressive statement.