Tony Williams

Tony Williams became an instant drumming legend when he emerged in the 1960s. I wouldn’t say he was better than folks like Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes, but he advanced their notions of polyrhythmic swing and continuous commentary in his recordings with Miles Davis, Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, and others. Along with his explosive drive and creativity behind soloists, Williams was sensitive to what the music needed, above all. In the Miles Davis quintet’s Philharmonic concert of 1964, Tony plays at every possible dynamic level, sometimes leading the charge, sometimes dropping out, sometimes devising a contrary rhythm somewhere in the middle. You can tell by his quick responses that he’s listening to every note everybody else plays.

As the 1970s loomed, Williams moved into electrified fusion, eventually working his way back to straight jazz via such projects as Herbie Hancock’s VSOP group. I’ve always preferred his earliest playing the most. Williams died in 1997, a shocking loss.

Life Time
Aug. 1964 / Blue Note RVG

It’s a measure of the drummer’s artistry (and precocity - he was still a teen) that his debut album was neither a technique-flexing barrage nor a dues-paying patchwork of standard bags. In fact, the most striking piece is a piano and bass duet in which no drums are heard at all! Of course, Tony Williams had already demonstrated his skills as a sideman, and with nothing to prove as a player, he was free to try out some abstract ideas.

The most approachable track is the trio piece “Tomorrow Afternoon” with tenor Sam Rivers and bassist Gary Peacock. Though sporting a free jazz edginess, it remains compact and conversational. The suite-like “Two Pieces of One” adds bassist Richard Davis to the mix, and the twin basses make for dark environs, particularly in the ascending themes of “Red” (the first piece). Williams and Rivers share a wild duet in “Green”, after which Tony continues playing solo. “Memory” is a percussive soundscape featuring Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, and Herbie Hancock, and then there’s “Barb’s Song to the Wizard”, a rainy evening etude played only by Herbie and Ron Carter. The sum of all five pieces isn’t that great, but there are several unique moments, thanks to Williams opting for a loose atmosphere instead of showing off his chops. Call it skeletal avant-garde.

Aug. 1965 / Blue Note RVG

Tony Williams’ heart clearly belonged to the freer jazz of the time, as this is another album with minimal script and a whole lot of invention on the spot. It brings together two of the most individual tenor saxophonists, Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers, along with pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Gary Peacock. Williams drums with a crisp attack, bantering with the soloists, molding meter and pulse to the moment, and he grants himself one solo piece in “Echo”. Elsewhere, he lets his sidemen do their thing, and they do it well. The opening track “Extras” contrasts Shorter (the more poetic player) and Rivers (a slightly wilder card), and while they are easily identified by their distinctive styles, they share some similarities, too. Shorter’s solo on “Extras” includes a lot of quick Rivers-like stabs, while Rivers’ solo borrows some of Wayne’s fluid control before spiraling outward.

After “Extras” (which also includes a turn from Peacock) and “Echo”, Hancock is featured in “From Before”, a piece of shadowy ripples and swells. Next up is “Love Song”, a folky theme over shifting meters. When I first heard this album several years ago, “Love Song” was the main standout, and with the 2009 RVG, that’s still the case. Shorter is absent from this track, an odd fact since the tune seems tailored for his style, but Rivers does a lovely job with the melody, and his solo heats up to a few trademark agitations. Hancock takes a good solo, too, exploiting his chemistry with Williams. The closing “Tee” returns Shorter to center stage in a key-less improvisation mapped via chromatic offramps and byways. Herbie follows, again connecting with the drums and bass, and then Peacock takes a solo, during which the track ends abruptly.

Spring is one of those free jazz albums I would deem accessible to listeners at large, with compatible participants and one affecting tune (“Love Song”) amidst all the spontaneity. While venturing outward, the music never gets noisy or purely primeval, and it’s actually just a hop, skip, and jump away from how Tony, Herbie, and Wayne would operate within the Miles Davis Quintet in the next couple of years.

May 1969 / Verve

After several years of cutting edge jazz, Williams moved into rock-jazz fusion, and his original Lifetime trio with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young was one of the seminal groups of the time. Their electric ferocity and the force of the drums comes from the rock side of things, but many of the actual lines stem from the “in and out” postbop school that all three players attended, and the music even swings at times. Although this Lifetime lineup was short-lived (as McLaughlin would soon found the Mahavishnu Orchestra), their imperfect yet revolutionary Emergency stamped them into history.

The key tracks “Emergency”, “Spectrum”, “Vashkar”, and “Sangria for Three” are cauldrons of slash and burn improv that occasionally turn into haunted soundscapes (Young’s eerie chords, McLaughlin’s distorted wah). Clamping his hi-hat on every beat, Williams balances swing and straight-eight drive in an aggressive momentum, and his cross-rhythms are all over the place. This music continues the tradition of free improvisation, in that there are no continuous riffs or backbeats, nor any polished arrangements, so the whole venture relies on collective interplay. For that reason, it’s tough to succinctly detail what happens in these tracks, but during many of the guitar and organ solos, I get the impression of a bungee jumper flinging themselves toward danger, only to be pulled back up to relative safety.

In taking on a rock influence, Williams also saw fit to include a few vocal tracks, and while he was beyond his years as a musician, his skill as a poet was nil. “Beyond Games”, based on a cranky guitar riff, is filled with speak-sing inanity, and I think McLaughlin shares some of the blame for the verbal narrative in “Via the Spectrum Road” (not to be confused with the other track “Spectrum”). Strangely enough, I don’t mind Tony’s plaintive vocal over the opening pulses of “Where”, which gives way to a hypnotic vamp, not unlike a saucerful of Pink Floyd.

Emergency isn’t a great recording – the drums sound okay, while the guitar and organ are like tattered wallpaper at times – but that adds to its mystique in a way. Of the three copies I’ve owned, the 1997 Verve remaster is pretty good. (The original double LP was on Polydor.) With the addition of Jack Bruce, this lineup made a second album called Turn It Over, which has some great stuff on it as well, but Emergency is the prime mover.

Feb-Mar. 1971 / Verve

With McLaughlin gone, the Tony Williams Lifetime here includes the leader on drums, Larry Young on organ, Ted Dunbar on guitar (several notches down from Johnny Mac), Ron Carter on bass, and Don Alias on percussion. Replacing the blistering improvs of Emergency and Turn It Over is a more reserved patchwork of moods, like the laid-back tropical flavor of “Circa 45”, a couple of percussion workouts (“Some Hip Drum Shit” – just call it like you hear it, Tony), and more “songs.” Apparently no one had the guts to tell Williams he can’t sing or write lyrics for anything, but there is decent music to be heard in “There Comes a Time” and “Lonesome Wells”, both reliant on Young’s rich chords. Alas, there’s no consolation for “Two Worlds”, a ridiculous piece sung by Jack Bruce.

Of the instrumentals, “Circa 45” sounds just alluring enough to overcome its repetitive structure, and “The Urchins of the Shermese” has some energy, although it’s not very memorable overall. My favorite track is “Mom and Dad”, which creeps lightly around a simple chord progression and has a captivating atmosphere, again thanks to the organ work. On all tunes, Williams matches the drums to the music, often maintaining a straight pulse in the background, sometimes punctuating with inimitable authority, and he obviously enjoys Alias’ company. I do too; the extra percussion is a welcome distraction from some of this album’s shortcomings.

Selections from Ego appeared on Verve’s Spectrum Lifetime anthology of 1997 (now out of print), and Ego got its own CD reissue in 1999. Only a few moments really do anything for me, and the other moments sound confused. Taking the horrible cover art and liner essay into account, it’s as if Williams was trying to make a hip Artistic Statement. This ace drummer wasn’t cut out for that.

Believe It
1975 / Columbia

Accompanied by Allan Holdsworth (guitar), Alan Pasqua (electric piano, clavinet), and Tony Newton (bass), Williams here remodels Lifetime into a challenging groove machine. There are no vocals this time; Williams correctly recognized the music as being potent enough on its own. The keyboards and funky basslines fit easily into the mid 1970s sound (notice Pasqua’s spotlight in the sultry “Wildlife”), while Williams lays down strong beats, erupts with a few fusillades (“Mr. Spock”), and generally betters most rock drummers at their own game. The real story, though, is Allan Holdsworth, whose speedy sophistication then and now is unparalleled. Unfortunately, in translating his Coltrane influence through a Marshall amp, Holdsworth perked the ears of the upcoming spandex and perm axemen, who only heard the velocity of the notes, not their melodic and harmonic totality. When Holdsworth lets rip on such numbers as “Fred”, “Red Alert”, and “Mr. Spock”, it’s not for the purpose of showing off. Perhaps my favorite solo of his, anyway, is the laid back soaring he does at the end of “Snake Oil”.

The whole album delivers a lot of impact and is in my view the most focused fusion album Williams ever made. There are some great tunes and hooks, like the insistent boogie of “Snake Oil”, the friendly chord riff of “Fred”, and the episodic “Mr. Spock”. Believe It appeared on a 1990s CD titled The Collection paired with its successor Million Dollar Legs (which did feature some vocals), and then it was reissued by itself in 2004 with two bonus tracks - the funky riff workout “Celebration” and an alternate version of “Mr. Spock” with a different ending (retitled “Letsby”). A must-own for fusion fans.

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