"Tony Williams: Sketches of a Modern Master"
by PAUL KREIBICH
- May 5, 1998
The scene is a mysterious, smoky jazz club on Cahuenga Blvd. in Los Angeles circa 1971. A wide-eyed 16-year-old student of the drums descends the staircase, chaperoned by his teacher and is taken to a seat by the sensual looking, patchouli scented hostess. The club is dark and moody in atmosphere, with the usual trappings of the post-sixties period. Psychedelic lights and posters, bizarre objets d'art, and spacey looking customers abound. The aroma of incense and the anticipation of new adventure are in the air. For a middle-class kid from the 'burbs, it's a bit of a walk on the wild side.
On stage is an exotic looking ensemble of musicians. A huge B-3 organ is emitting sounds that seem to be more from some interplanetary frequency than the tempered scale. There are percussion instruments of many types including Tympani, marimba, chimes, gongs, bells and more. Another percussionist is playing congas and other Latin and African instruments, adding even more patina to the sonic canvas. The melody is played on guitar with a biting sound like the taste of grapefruit on a cold morning.
At the front of this group and slightly stage left is a small, slender man behind a large drum kit facing sideways to the audience. With eyes closed, head cocked to one side, and relaxed power surging through every cell, he is driving the band to greater and greater intensity. Now he's doing a long single-stroke roll for a climactic fill. It's about as fast as two sticks can imaginably be moved-as fast as anything the great Buddy Rich ever played. The only strange thing is that the sticks are rising up at least 3 feet off the snare drum in a kinetic fanning motion that is as startling to the eye as the sound is to the
The drummer is Tony Williams. He's playing in Hollywood at another drummer's club, Shelly's Manne-Hole, with the latest incarnation of his band "Lifetime". Larry Young is on organ with Ted Dunbar, guitar, and Juny Booth on bass. Warren Smith and Don Alias are the percussionists. Odd time signatures and strange sounding timbres abound. One is simultaneously startled at the power of the music, yet drawn in by the subtlety of its dynamics and natural woodiness.
The novel sounds are spiced occasionally with one of Tony's stylized vocals like "There Comes a Time". "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…" Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the mock prophetic lyrics can be taken seriously or as a sly satirical sendup of the hippie-dippy psychedelic rhetoric of the time. It's just part of the creative fun of Tony's music.
As the evening's performance draws to a close there is a collective feeling that all present have experienced something very special, a work in progress by a modern master. Watching and listening to the great Tony Williams play the drums makes you realize what that hackneyed cliché "poetry in motion" really means. That night still glows in my memory and is one of the reasons why this writer is active in music today.
Born in Chicago on December12, 1945, Tony Williams moved to Boston with his family while still a toddler. His father, Tillmon, was a postal worker who also played tenor saxophone. (He actually played on one of Tony's records). Tony loved to beat on pots and pans as a youngster and his dad eventually gave him a Slingerland Radio king drum set at age 8. He had natural talent and the good fortune to be growing up in a city famous for music education. By 1958 he was studying with the great percussion teacher Alan Dawson. His drumming was becoming a natural extension of the greats like Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Joe Jones. Barely a teenager, he was asked to play and record with saxophonist Sam Rivers and was already working in Boston Clubs like "Wally's and the "The High-Hat". It wasn't long before this precocious kid was acclaimed as a real innovator on his instrument.
He went to New York at the tender age of 16 to work with Jackie McLean and his quintet. He had an acting role in the off-Broadway play "The Connection", which featured McLean. In 1963 he received the ultimate jazz accolade, an invitation to join the Miles Davis Quintet. Miles, who was at the height of his success, described Tony as "the type of drummer who only comes along every 30 years". With Ron Carter on bass and keyboardist Herbie Hancock, whom Tony introduced to Miles, this rhythm section is thought by some to be the greatest of all time. Their first album was Seven Steps to Heaven and Tony appeared on 13 of Miles most influential recordings including Nefertiti, Miles Smiles, My Funny Valentine, and the groundbreaking In a Silent Way. During this period he also played on many records for the Blue Note label both as leader and sideman.
After his years with Miles, Tony, who was always searching for something new, formed a power rock band with Larry Young, guitar great John McLaughlin, and bassist Jack Bruce. Influenced by everything from Jimi Hendrix to the organ trios of Jimmy Smith, Lifetime revealed Tony's love for the energy and volume of rock music. He was a fan of the late Keith Moon and Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell was a friend. With it's free modal improvisation and complex rhythms, Lifetime set the stage for the fusion movement, influencing Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea's Return to Forever and Weather Report.
In 1975, Tony Williams formed the "New Tony Williams Lifetime," recording three albums for Columbia with Allen Holdsworth, Alan Pasqua, and Tony Newton, receiving a Grammy nomination in 1979. He moved to San Francisco in 1977 and began to play in a diverse group of settings, including teaching and continuing his study of composition. Tony wrote for and recorded with the Gil Evans Orchestra, including an arrangement of There Comes a Time, the title track. Tony reunited with Herbie, Ron, and Wayne Shorter, first as the V.S.O.P. quintet with Freddie Hubbard, then with Wallace Roney in the Grammy winning "Tribute to Miles Davis" tour. In the last years of his career, his band was the "Tony Williams Quintet", a hard driving, post bop ensemble that featured Billy Pierce on sax, Wallace Roney on trumpet, and Mulgrew Miller on piano. Williams wrote most of the music for this group.
In 1988 he conducted a Master Class in drumming at the Mozart Conservatory in Salzburg, Austria. Williams studies of classical composition with Dr. Robert Greenberg of U.C Berkeley and others culminated in his receiving a commission to write a piece for string quartet, piano and drums. In 1990, on what Tony described was "the biggest night of my career" the composition, "Rituals: Music for String Quartet, Piano, Drums and Cymbals," was performed at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco with Herbie Hancock on piano and the Kronos String Quartet. It was an acclaimed performance that led to a city award. Tony's writing for strings can also be heard on his last album, Wilderness.
A Special Evening
The first time this writer heard Tony Williams on record was an unforgettable experience. A couple of other drum students and myself were hanging out one night at the home of our teacher, Bob Wrate around 1969. Bob was an excellent drum teacher and an astute connoisseur of modern jazz with an extensive record collection. As teenagers and aspiring musicians, we were really getting in to absorbing all the new sensations and attitudes associated with these jazz sounds and the musicians who played them. One great record after another came on to the dynamite stereo system and we were listening with all our hearts. When Mile's Davis' Four and More came on I was so knocked out by the way the band was playing -especially Tony-that it became a real turning point in my life. It was at that moment that I knew that the drums were for me. Until then Buddy Rich and Max Roach were the big heroes. What Miles' band was playing was, to quote Monty Python, "something completely different."
The sound of Tony's K-Zildian ride cymbal was very unique. It had a very dark burnished sound, but the attack of the stick was extremely clear and present. The interplay between Tony and Herbie Hancock was more that just hand in glove. They took all sorts of chances stretching the harmony and punching out cross-rhythmic patterns that would soar over the bar lines, creating breaking-point tension before boomeranging back to touch down into the basic pulse again. The listener could do nothing but shake his head, regain his footing, and brace him or herself for the next ear-stretching salvo of rhythms. It was like musical cubism. Ron Carter's solid bass underpinning helped immeasurably to let these two take flight. We all knew that we wanted to play like that. Many other musicians through the years have said that they heard this recording in their formative years and were similarly influenced by it. If you haven't heard it already, check it out!
A similar experience was had listening to Emergency, the first recording by the Tony William's Lifetime with Larry Young and John McLaughlin. There's a story that this powerful trio of players came in to the recording studio and started to play very intense, inspired music almost immediately, even before the mikes were set up.
The engineers were falling over each other, hurrying to get a sound on the band and document what was happening. The result was a groundbreaking recording that was amazing in its energy, virtuosity and creativity. Tony was born to be a jazz virtuoso and play with older, more mature musicians like Miles, but in real time he was a member of the rock generation who listened to the Beatles and the Who. Lifetime reflected his desire to express himself in the context of his own feelings and experience. He was a born leader and like-minded musicians were more than happy to join him in fulfilling his vision, for it was theirs as well.
Keyboardist Alan Pasqua worked with Williams in the "New Tony Williams Lifetime" from 1974 to 1976. Pasqua met Tony when they played together at a George Russel concert at Carnegie Hall involving 2 big bands and an electric ensemble. Tony was impressed by his playing and asked him to join his new band. Alan remembers Tony as a strong bandleader who knew what he wanted, but one who encouraged his sidemen to express themselves. He would say, "play some big chords here" or "try some funky clavinet on this", but would leave the final choices up to the individual musicians. Tony was a mentor and personal friend. Their first album, Believe It, was a real hit among both rock and jazz musicians and the public as well. It brought English fusion guitar virtuoso Allen Holdsworth into the spotlight with his soaring, fluid sound. One of the features of the band was Tony's blistering, polyrhythmic drum solos over Pasqua's solid keyboard vamps. Pasqua said that while most music fans were enamored with William's incredible drumming, he was equally gifted as a composer and worked very hard at it.
Check out the tune Wildlife. Alan also feels that Tony, like Miles, was always trying to reinvent himself and find new contexts to play in. After revolutionizing straight-ahead jazz drumming, he wanted to move on and stay with the times. The seventies band even had a rock wardrobe complete with bellbottoms and platform shoes. They traveled to many gigs by stationwagon with Tony's cat, Nettie, an important member of the entourage.
In the early '90s Tony's business manager was Bill Traut, who found him to be a gentleman who knew what he wanted and had a lot of confidence about it. His complete understanding of the music and leadership qualities impressed Traut. Tony was always the one to run the rehearsals and organize things. This, said Bill, even went back to his days with Miles. When Williams heard that Buddy Rich, whom he deeply respected, had died he called Bill Traut and said, "I am now the world's best drummer."
Tony had a certain bravado. He liked fast cars, big cigars and had extravagant tastes. He could sometimes be a demanding person to deal with, but people who were close to him such as personal manager Carol Nu seem to agree that it was obvious he was a musical genius and a thoughtful intellectual. She feels that the tough exterior was there to protect a more sensitive, vulnerable person inside. He had had to deal with being in the spotlight from a very young age. Pianist Mulgrew Miller, who played in the quintet, said, "I think Tony hears things differently from most people. It's clear that from the age of 18 he's been an independent thinker."
Guitarist Frank Potenza relates this story of a drum clinic in San Antonio Texas in the late eighties. The theatre was packed. Max Roach and Ellis Marsalis were there to check it out too. Tony came out on stage and stood there looking at the canary yellow Gretsch drumset. He then proclaimed, "I LOVE the drums! I love the way they look, I love the way they sound, I love the way they smell!" He then sat down and took a 15 minute unaccompanied drum solo that just knocked everybody on the floor. "Are there any questions?" he asked. An uncomfortable silence followed. Ellis Marsalis broke the ice by asking, "Would you like to talk about the brushes a little?"
"No!", Williams replied emphatically. "I have them but I don't like them. They were probably invented by some one who doesn't like the drums like a club owner." Max Roach sat in glaring disbelief at what he had just heard.
There was, of course, an element of shock value and exaggeration to Tony's statements. He possessed as fine a brush technique as any drummer could hope for. Just listen to "All of You" on the Miles complete Carnegie Concert Hall CD. His brushwork is incredibly smooth and flowing, going beyond timekeeping and into the realm of sound texture and colors, literally shading the music. The point is that Tony had balls. When it was time to play loud, he played LOUD! He was an active proponent for drummer's rights. He was a liberating force that, like other percussive innovators before him, elevated the musical position of the drummer in a band to a higher level of input and interaction. With the unleashing of this cauldron of power was a level of intelligence, taste and musicality that always directed its force an a creative direction. Tony was a 100% assertive individual.
In 1996 I met Tony between sets at his quintet's gig at Catalina's in Hollywood.
It felt good to tell him what an influence he had been. He and wife Colleen were still celebrating their recent marriage. Tony was relaxed and friendly and seemed to enjoy greeting his enthusiastic fans.
Sadly, Tony Williams died in March of 1997 of a heart attack following gall bladder surgery. A prodigy who more than fulfilled his promise, he was still taken from us much too soon. Tony had many projects planned such as filming master class videos on the roots of modern drumming with trips to West Africa and Cuba. He is sorely missed.
In a 1992 Williams told a reporter, "I feel like an eternal student. I'm always trying to learn something new and it's a great feeling."
Tony Williams' playing, composing, and musical integrity will be an influence on musicians for many generations to come…. Especially those who decide to pick up a pair of sticks.