Tony Williams: Life Time

On what would have been his 67th birthday December 12th, Haylow posted a wonderful appreciation of the drummer Tony Williams. With this post, I want to offer some insights on his first six recordings as a band leader (the first two on Blue Note and the other four on Polydor).

Williams was a child prodigy on the drums, reportedly playing professionally in Boston as early as age 13. He arrived in New York City at age 16 after being ‘discovered’ by the alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. As a member of the Jackie McLean All Stars, Miles Davis heard him play, and he was playing with Miles Davis at age 17.

1964AnthonyWilliamsLifeTime At age 18, Williams recorded his first album Life Time as band leader under his formal name, Anthony Williams. This recording is completely spontaneous in spirit; full of energy and sensitivity. I have seen this album labeled as “free jazz,” “hard bop,” and “post bop.” As much as I don’t like labels, preferring to let the music stand on its own, I might label it avant garde. Labels aside, this is music that foretells his future as a musician who speaks the width, breadth, height, depth, and immediacy of being alive through music. Here is Tomorrow Afternoon (Sam Rivers, tenor saxophone; Gary Peacock, bass; Anthony Williams, drums).

Tony WILLIAMS SpringOne year after recording Life Time, Williams recorded his second album as a leader, Spring (Wayne Shorter, tenor sax; Sam Rivers, tenor sax; Herbie Hancock, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Anthony Williams, drums). With Spring, Williams continued to challenge the traditional role of the jazz drummer, creating a wide open head space for the other musicians to create – improvise. Love Song is perhaps the most lyrical composition on this record, but it is characteristic of this recording, complex and adventurous, clear and open, i.e., spring.

After Spring, Williams played on perhaps a dozen or so albums, most with Miles Davis, before recording his next album as leader in 1969. Given the time of tremendous societal upheaval and change, and the explosion in expression via popular music, Williams is quoted as saying he wanted to do something totally different than what he’d done with Miles Davis. He is quoted as saying he’d been listening to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and MC5 and that as a result, his drumming had become more aggressive. Williams has said that this was the direction that he wanted to follow.

Tony Williams - EmergencyThe result of two days in the studio with Larry Young on organ (who he knew but had never played with), and guitarist John McLaughlin (who he’d heard but never met), in May of 1969 was Emergency! A manifesto for the marriage of rock and jazz, this eight-song two-record set was, in Williams’s own words, the best of everything, a combination of the last fifteen years, of everything he’d learned.

Unpredictable and immediate, bold and alive, wild and free, this recording follows the same improvisational spirit as his two previous recordings, but Emergency! pushes the boundaries of both rock and jazz beyond both his earlier recordings and his recordings with Miles. Consequently, the record was not well received by the traditional jazz community. It was better received by the rock community and by critics, but Williams felt that the band had been vilified. However, audiences reportedly loved the recordings and again, after witnessing one of their club appearances, Miles Davis is said to have wanted to hire the band for himself. Williams declined, but ultimately Davis got both Williams and McLaughlin to record on In A Silent Way.

I did not discover this record until about 20 years after its release (and it was from this record that I discovered Williams’s Blue Note recordings and the subsequent Lifetime recordings on Polydor). I found this recording on vinyl, and I listen to it, more often than not, on a stereo hi-fi console, a big piece of furniture with West German electronics including a 1960s Dual turntable and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I used to sit in meditation, the only light in the room the glow from the hi-fi lights, and digest this recording. Trying to figure it out. Allowing myself the freedom to open up from the inside. Here is the song Beyond Games. Strange, mysterious, innocent, and knowing, this is fearless artistic expression.

Tony-Williams-Turn-It-Over-453760Lifetime expanded into a quartet in 1970 with the addition of former Cream bassist Jack Bruce and Turn It Over was the result of the group’s time in the studio. Darker, and perhaps a bit more rock oriented than Emergency, Williams has said that Turn It Over was a reaction to both the backlash in the aftermath of Emergency, and the racial and political pressures and changes of the time. The songs, less epic and shorter in length, reflect both the tension and anxiety of the time and in the band (reflecting the difficulty of dealing with the fact that their music was not always accepted). Perhaps in response to the lack of appreciation for the music, Williams has said that the idea behind Turn It Over was to create something that was aggressively antagonistic. The album cover is black and the back cover liner notes are somewhat difficult to read with the exception of two lines in all caps bold: PLAY IT LOUD. PLAY IT VERY VERY LOUD.

Here is the song Vuelta Abajo. Driving, muscular, raucous, and dramatic, this is the chemical combustion of next generation progressive jazz and psychedelic rock, freed from all constrictions.

After Turn It Over, the group toured England but by the end of the tour, McLaughlin and Bruce had left. Williams has said that bringing Bruce into the mix (no fault of Bruce’s) had changed the group’s dynamic so that everyone had his idea of where the group should go. Williams has said that as young as he was (24), he did not have the experience to recognize that he should have fought to maintain his original vision.

Tony Williams Lifetime Ego AWhen he made it back into the studio, the group’s line up included Ron Carter on bass, Ted Dunbar on guitar, and Don Alias and Warren Smith on percussion. The album Ego, released in 1971, seems to deal with these issues of Williams turning inward as a band leader, expressing his vision for his band. Described both as ‘weird’ and ‘more focused’ as compared to prior releases, the focus seems to be more on Williams and the percussionists who added a new dimension with marimba, conga, and tympani. Perhaps a little more mature than the prior releases, Ego seems personal, deeper, and soulful, while retaining the immediacy, passion, and complexity of prior recordings. It might be described as astral funk.

Here is the song There Comes A Time on which Williams wrote (was he addressing his new resolve as band leader?) and sang the lyric ‘There comes a time when you want to be older. There comes a time when you want to be bolder. I love you more when it’s over. I love you more when it’s over.’ Damn.

tony-williams-the-old-bums-rush-Released in 1972, The Old Bum’s Rush was the last of the Polydor recordings (and the only one of these albums I don’t own and so I have never heard the entire album). One source says that when this album was released, Tony Williams Lifetime was less a partnership than a vehicle for Williams as a solo artist. There were more personnel changes: Webster Lewis on organ and clavinette; David Horowitz on piano, vibes, and ARP synthesizer; Herb Bushler on Bass; Tilmon Wilson on Tenor Saxophone; and a female vocalist on guitar and percussion, Tequila.

Williams has said that knowing this was his last album for Polydor, and feeing like he was getting the bum’s rush, he decided the album cover would show a guy being thrown out of a club. I’ve only heard five of the seven tracks on this record, and while it sounds alternately conventional and unconventional, sometimes jazz and sometimes R&B (and even folkish?), it is still completely experimental (though in a different way from prior recordings), vibrant, and authentic.

Here is the song You Make It Easy featuring Tequila on vocals.

These six recordings are a remarkable contribution to jazz, and the first three Polydor recordings (Emergency!, Turn It Over, and Ego) are seminal jazz/rock fusion, before fusion was tamed, eventually devolving into smooth jazz. Tony Williams changed the role of drummer from time keeper to the nucleus around which the other instrumentalists orbit.

Upon discovering these first three Polydor recordings, they became religious music for me. If music is my religion, these three albums were the hymns that guided my evolution. They were the soundtrack to the evolution of my spiritual consciousness. They pushed me to sit in spaces within myself that I would not otherwise. Thank you Tony Williams.

Tony Williams

One comment on “Tony Williams: Life Time

  1. A thorough synopsis of the career of the great jazz drummer, Tony Williams. (Written by Carled)

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