The Runners-Up is a monthly column, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The album we’ll look at this month is…Billy Cobham‘s Crosswinds, originally released in 1974. (Get it from Amazon.)
Cobham (who appeared on the BA podcast in 2018) first came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His early credits included albums by George Benson, Horace Silver, Hubert Laws and Leon Thomas, but he really made his name with his work on Miles Davis‘s A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In 1971, he was a founding member of John McLaughlin‘s Mahavishnu Orchestra, staying with them for two studio albums (The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire), the live Between Nothingness and Eternity, and the material released in 1999 as The Lost Trident Sessions. In 1973, he played on the Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin album Love Devotion Surrender, and made his debut as a leader with Spectrum.
Spectrum was a fast, punchy quartet album which featured guitarist Tommy Bolin, keyboardist Jan Hammer, and bassist Leland Sklar on most tracks, though two pieces were performed with Ron Carter on bass, Ray Barretto on congas, Jimmy Owens on trumpet or flugelhorn, and Joe Farrell on flute and saxophones. Cobham’s ultra-precise, high-energy drumming was showcased throughout, as he drove his bandmates around the steep curves and hairpin turns of the compositions, all of which he wrote.
The following year, he made two albums, Crosswinds and Total Eclipse, with a band that included Randy and Michael Brecker on trumpet and saxophones, and John Abercrombie on guitar. On Crosswinds, they were joined by keyboardist George Duke, bassist John Williams, trombonist Garnett Brown, and percussionist Lee Pastora. On Total Eclipse and the 1975 live album Shabazz, Milcho Leviev took over on keyboards, Alex Blake was on bass, and Glenn Ferris was on trombone.
Crosswinds contains only four tracks. The 17-minute “Spanish Moss – A Sound Portrait” takes up the entire first side, with “The Pleasant Pheasant,” “Heather,” and “Crosswind” on the flip. Interestingly, “Spanish Moss” appears as four individual movements on streaming services (see above), but on my CD version, it’s one long track, with the sections separated by the sound of rushing winds and gongs (or maybe they’re church bells). The first movement, “Spanish Moss,” is a Latin-rock fusion number with tight horn charts but no solos to speak of. The second, “Savannah the Serene,” is a ballad. It’s mainly structured around Abercrombie’s gentle guitar and Duke’s pastoral keyboards. Brown takes a long, lovely trombone solo that almost sounds more like a French horn at times; it has a real lushness. Duke offers a beautiful two-minute electric piano solo as a sort of coda. The third movement, “Storm,” is a Cobham drum solo, and it’s aptly named. His drums are phased with some sort of electronic effect, and the winds blow throughout much of the piece, making it seem like he’s attempting to be heard over nature itself. The suite’s final section, “Flash Flood,” kicks off with a shrill, almost willfully annoying soprano sax solo (also subject to electronic manipulation), followed by a fanfare from the full horn section and a squiggly guitar outburst from Abercrombie, doubled so he’s doing battle with himself Santana/Mclaughlin style. Behind them, Cobham is keeping up a relentless, militaristic assault on the kit, driving the energy level into the stratosphere and beyond.
The album’s second side is a little more conventional. “The Pleasant Pheasant” is an elbow-throwing Latin/R&B funk track with tight horn interplay and a particularly muscular tenor sax solo, as well as an excellent percussion interlude where Cobham throws it seamlessly to Pastora. The whole thing fades out after five minutes, still going in a “we could have jammed all night” mode. “Heather” (it’s unclear whether this is named for a woman, or the evergreen flowering plant) is a Quiet Storm-ish ballad that probably didn’t need to be almost nine minutes long, but Duke is great on it, taking a gentle electric piano solo while also adding a synth drone that flies slowly across the stereo field from left to right like a large robotic mosquito. At about the four-minute mark, Michael Brecker comes floating in on a cloud of money and delivers a tenor sax solo probably best heard on late-night R&B radio while driving down rain-slicked city streets, neon lights reflecting in your black sunglasses. Directors of throwback neo-noir movies, video game creators: this song is here, waiting patiently for you. “Crosswind” closes things out. This track was actually released as a single, and it’s not hard to understand why; it’s another head-nodding, almost Meters-level funky strut, with an impossibly deep groove and slick horn work, but the real focus is a screaming Abercrombie solo that with its long, crying sustain and fret-melting eruptions, sounds more like Eddie Hazel than “jazz guitar.”
Spectrum is always going to be Billy Cobham‘s best-known solo album — it was his first major statement, and it’s a landmark in fusion — but the records he made after that, diving deep into funk while indulging his ambitions as a composer, are to my ear even better, and Crosswinds deserves a lot more attention than it gets these days.