Sunday, November 23, 2014

Digital Double! "Warning", Billy Cobham 1980's GRP "Power Play"


Drummer Billy Cobham's GRP debut is a fairly solid jam session: there’s no nonsense or kitchiness here. If you can imagine, Warning hearkens to Jeff Beck’s rock-edged fusion triad (Blow by Blow, Wired, There And Back -- before the godawful Flash) with a thick of bombast from the rhythm section.

Warning delivers a hard, raw sound as prescribed, as if Cobham and his band were rockin' out. At the same time, Warning sounds as if it could’ve used an uptempo, an added layer of polish, and/or rehearsal through an otherwise fully original material. Warning almost sounds as if it could've been recorded in the late 70’s, which is both good and bad: Good as this kind of fusion is disappearing by way of slicker production values, bad because it's not as clean, fluent or progressive as even Cobham's early-80's Glass Menagerie works.

The disc, which spans eight cuts, features all originals penned by Cobham, with Stratus making yet another reprise, which at least tried to reinvigorate the bedrock Cobham classic, condensed and rocked-up a bit.

More than a few are synthesizer-led pieces which reminds us Cobham has joined the 80's: Red & Yellow Cabriolet a wild west bombast of faux-trumpet synths stand out with bandmates Gerry Etkins, who sticks to synthesizers mainly, often solos on pianos acoustic and Rhodes. Bassist Baron Browne also shines on more than one track with a distinctive, thick bass heard throughout and guitarist Dean Brown fills in with mostly grungy guitars, with a lengthy solo Slow Body Poppin' and his real showcase on Unknown Jeromes.

Mozaik enters with far-east flair and punchy finger bass by Browne, The Dancer's express pace forecasts future jazz with touches of latin percussion by Sa Davis and Etkins exploring the organ as he plays the track out. Go For It! has a celebratory ease and by far the most fluid playthrough for the band with a rock-solid backbone.

Warning’s even tempered set list manages to pull through though like a tranquilized Jeff Beck album. Cobham allows the band to flex a bit on each track even when solos seem compulsory and limited instead of crafted and fleshed-out like Cobham's 70's sessions. He himself finds himself disappearing in the background. At times, the band can’t help sounding tragically lethargic and too sluggish.


NOTABLE TRACKS : Mozaik, Go For It!, The Dancer, Unknown Jeromes
THOUGH Melodically accomplished, sounds too slow, lacks a needed layer of polish

Coming off the heels of 1985’s rough start for Cobham on the Grusin-Rosen label, 1986 plows through with Power Play. This time around, Cobham returns primed with a more focused package and even an old-school, epic 14-minute odyssey that calls right back to his roots as a more progressive fusion drummer.

The gang’s all here as well in a slew of original compositions by Cobham though in slightly different form to reflect a much more electronic set. Gerry Etkins back on synthesizers mainly, Baron Browne scaling back his pronounced basslines, Dean Brown tuning in-and-out of guitar synthesizers and an additional layer of synth by Onaje Allan Gumbs. Right off the bat, Power Play dazzles with much higher polish than the previous recording, where Cobham’s drums are remarkably fit and beautifully crisp, nakedly gimmick-free without effects -- what they should’ve been on Warning.

Power Play trips up when Cobham experiments with dreaded drum sequencing and results in flimsy era sap and redundant loops and crippled development on Zanzibar Breeze and the marginally better calypso-tinged Dessicated Coconuts towards the denouement of the disc. Thankfully, Cobham only has two stints with the drum machines, casting most of his band aside for these two ill-fitting, lame, drawn-out blunders that has the band sitting out.

Power Play becomes an otherwise tempest fusion workout from all sides of the band, beginning with the winning melodic opener Times of My Life, a preview of Power Play’s by-large tighter arranging than before. Energetic and more progressive, Cobham actually has a flurry of superb solos time this time around which dazzle in crystal clear production. His once dated sound on Warning sounds ahead of its time here with every minute detail of his flawless playing are captured in impeccable stellar, crisp sound. Make no mistake, this album still reminds us it’s still 1986 following a future jazz soundscape.

Power Play has more than a few infectious cuts on its increasingly synthesized backbone which never sounds soured even though Brown, Etkins and Gumbs all obscure into the synthy mass. Yet, it attains good balance unlike many other recordings during this time: the ethereal down-tempo groove Light Shines In Your Eyes but no more than the six-part Summit Afrique suite, peppered with lots of solos and flex by the band, an exhibit absent on Warning. Dance of the Blue Man explodes with a tight Jeff Baxter-mixed-Grant Geissman jazz guitar we didn’t hear from Dean Brown’s grungier full-ins on Warning. The Little Ones mystical imagery is laden with dueling keyboard scapes and even a little acoustic guitaring.

Tinseltown compiles dramatic movie-like fanfares with limited use of Linn claps and the more aggressive Radioactive follow manic drum-versus-synthesizer almost (video) game music-like ending with the tamer
tropics of Schmagofatz.

While Power Play isn’t a conventional choice of fusion mastery for many critics who dismiss Cobham’s 80’s career on GRP, it makes the grade of some of the best energy without unnecessary fluff during this period with captivating, engaging set of arrangements that play well on repeat listens in each of the rhythm section’s contributions not seen before, poured into this session. Though not as flexible or progressive-jazz as Cobham’s Glass Menagerie, it's a logical link to the past without living in it.


NOTABLE TRACKS : Times of My Life, The Little Ones, Dance of The Blue Man, Light Shines In Your Eyes, Tinsletown

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