Monday, May 02, 2011

Sweat + exaltation: In praise of the Tony Williams Lifetime

Emergency!, by the Tony Williams Lifetime, is my favorite album right this second. I remember buying it in college and connecting strongly with the first track ("Emergency" itself), but it never became an obsession. Now I hear it as a mindblower.

The other night on WKCR, Mitch Goldman had Vernon Reid as his guest and they were listening to rare recordings of early fusion—including some live material by Lifetime—the idea being to examine this budding genre "before it had a name." A great concept for sure, and it led me back to Lifetime with fresh ears.

I love the abandon in the second section (beginning at :54, after the Hendrixy intro) of "Sangria for Three" (see above), the dervish spirit, driven by Williams's Latin-ish beat. The boomy bass drum, the singing toms. And the sense of total abandon. Virtuosity, yes, but with true racing excitement. McLaughlin just as much about perverse note tangles as about fluidity (listen at 2:26 in particular). All the distortion, the buzzing volume, swarms of organ from Larry Young. It's music you want to turn up absurdly loud, just to get at the sheer head-busting aspect of it. Take heed around 3:12, when all three hammer on this looped drone, building tension and busting it open.

The music has so much dirt to it, so much punk energy, and the before-it-had-a-name concept is important. I'm not exactly sure when the fusion backlash started in earnest (does anyone know if there were certain critics, say, who led the charge, or was it an across-the-board thing, aimed largely at Miles?), but I wonder if people were hearing this as some sort of concession. What this first version of Lifetime definitely is not, is the sterile concept that came to be associated with fusion, the empty chops displays, dexterity without soul, etc. It couldn't be less that, really. It's hungry music, with terrifying, about-to-come-off-the-rails drive to it. Williams didn't want to show off—he wanted to take a familiar concept, the jazz organ trio (see this fascinating 1997 Williams interview: "Everybody talks about Lifetime being the first fusion band, but it was really sort of a throwback to what was going on when I started out in Boston. I played with a lot of organ trios because that was one of the big sounds there, and that's what the original Lifetime really was."), and get modern with with it, get weird, get out, get severely loud and brain-bent and psychedelic. (On the latter tip, I'd always dismissed Williams's vocals on this record as tedious, but last night, I started to hear them as an integrated part of the whole—this is psychedelic, exploratory, truly experimental music, and the dreamy, textural vocals, on the track "Where," say, help advance that aspect. It's like Floyd jazz.)

And there is SO much freedom in this music, a freedom that moves way beyond Free Jazz. The level of listening in the moment, of following tangential impulses, really gets me. Check out at 3:46 in this track, when Williams drops out and McLaughlin and Young start to paint with pure color. Dabs and blobs of overdriven sound. An acquaintance with the technology ("What is this thing called distortion?"). Actual improvisation, de-styled, and such a wonderful curveball after the sweaty headlongness of the first section. Williams isn't playing, but I bet he had his eyes closed and that he was fascinated. Listen from about 5:22–5:26—I think I hear the snares in his snare drum rattling sympathetically.

Shortly into this second part, Williams drops the brain-rattling beat. Young lays into the keys, yielding a howling wind. Again, the desire to crank this music up is absolutely irresistible; you just want to keep driving it further. During the reprise of the Latin section (about 1:10, introduced by a flurry of Williams's patented molten-lava press rolls), McLaughlin seems to say, "I'm done with notes." He's in this sort of rhythm-guitar trance, tossing out exaggeratedly clipped figures that seem to hint at the full-on staccato-swagger world-swallowing riff he would later bust out in the middle of Miles's "Right Off" (from A Tribute to Jack Johnson—skip to 7:45 here), which was recorded about ten months later (April 7, 1970 vs. May 26 and 28, 1969 for Emergency!). Kicking up dust is paramount here, McLaughlin just riding the dervish rhythm. The band is like a horde, a swarm, a miasma, advancing end-over-end, Williams flattening the time with more unbearably poetic press rolls (listen around 3:06). A shaggy, squawking meteorite, grooving through the universe.

When you hear this, you feel like you might know what is truly meant by the term "jam band," the platonic ideal of it. This is actually a jam, an equal ante-ing up by three players, doing their best to assemble the trippiest, most righteous group vibe. It's actually what fusion is supposed to be, drawing on the volume and the balls and cacophony of late-’60s hard rock, as well as the dexterity and deep listening of mid-to-late-’60s jazz (the kind the Williams himself was playing with Miles). But really, you don't think about any of that. You just think about the radioactive dust, the head-busting solar energy.

As before, the beat drops out around 4:10. Listen to the cooling rain of Williams's cymbal rolls. The ensuing McLaughlin/Young duet is like a bath of retro sound, kitschy in its way but so pure, defined by an actual not-knowingness of what will happen next. It must have been so liberating for jazz players to just toss form out the window in this way, and even the form of what was then thought of as avant-garde jazz, which was a more-or-less anti-rock style of expression. No, this is about letting in ALL the noise swirling around at the time, not just a Free Jazz blare, but also the ugliness and the mystery at the edge of the period's rock and funk, the pure-sound bliss out/exorcism that lived in the blank spaces between the genres.

Williams's drops the beat around 6:08. (I think I hear a faint vocal sailing over top.) Larry Young sounding like he's being electrocuted by his own instrument, galvanizing this Frankenstein lurch of a groove. By about 7:10, Williams gives it up, lets the nothingness creep in, and we head into a pure-sound crescendo. You just want this throbbing swell to go on forever. I'm so intrigued by the perversity of this band, its complete lack of decorum or "good taste." And that's not to say this music is not thoughtful or highly interactive; just that it pushes where it needs to go when it needs to go there. If an explosion, a pure-sound sunburst, has to happen at this or that point in the music, it happens.

What a shame that this before-it-had-a-name couldn't have just been seen as the next logical step, as the freedom-quest that it actually was, an improvisational music form that matched the times, rising up to meet all of what was possible. I've read that Tony Williams was a great admirer of John Bonham (and vice versa). He couldn't sound like him if he tried (has anyone ever really been able to?), but he could lob a kind of response bomb to the rock he was digging. That's what this music is to me, an attempt not exactly to get with the times, to concede to them (my sense is that that's what Williams, Miles and whomever else were called out for at the time: selling out, somehow, by plugging in), but to amass and assimilate them, as a rolling snowball would. At its best, as on Emergency!, the result isn't "jazz + rock," it's just pure meltdown—sweat + exaltation.


P.S. Anyone know the whole Lifetime catalog well? My current knowledge is spotty. I very much enjoy the Holdsworth era, e.g., Believe It, even though it's a lot cleaner and less sheerly mindblwing than the McLaughlin-Young stuff. What else is worth checking out? There are so many records: Ego, Turn It Over, Million Dollar Legs, The Old Bum's Rush, etc. etc. The only Lifetime YouTube clips I can find show the Ego lineup with Young, Ted Dunbar, Don Alias and Warren Smith, i.e., here (picture is overly dark, but the sound is amazing) and here and here (the latter features some nice simultaneous singing/drumming from Williams on "There Comes a Time," which includes the amazing line "I love you more when you're spiteful"). A non-Lifetime Tony Williams bonus track: Check out this beautiful 1972 clip of him in trio with Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty.

I'm also curious about McLaughlin's non-Mahavishnu output from around this time (I know Extrapolation but not Devotion) and Larry Young's fusion-era stuff. Is Lawrence of Newark great? I've never really checked it out. There's also an album he made with Joe Chambers called Double Exposure. Are there other records by these players (or like-minded folks—Larry Coryell, maybe?) that get at the Emergency! vibe, or is this record as rare a bird as it seems to me to be? What about, gasp, TRIO OF DOOM w/ Jaco?

P.P.S. Right as I was done writing, I stumbled on a Howard Mandel essay on Spectrum Road, the Lifetime tribute band (feat. Vernon Reid) that's currently making the rounds. Looks like he gives praise to the original stuff too. Psyched to read.


Brandon Allen said...

Hey Hank, I kinda did the reverse of you, recently checking out Trio of Doom and then deciding to go and listen to Emergency. I'd definitely recommend you check that album out, as Jaco adds a ton of energy to the already ferocious combination of John and Tony. I have a review of the album at, but I'm sure you'll be able to come up with a much more insightful review. But still, definitely give the album I listen; I really wish Trio of Doom had been more than a onetime project.

bshazaaam said...

To answer one of your questions, yes, Lawrence of Newark is great. Definitely more kosmigroov than the proto-fusion sound of Emergency, though that's certainly not a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your Lifetime enthusiasm. Now if you had only heard them live ... I did and my head hasn't been the same since.

Trio of Doom? After the gig, McL blew his top at Jaco for playing such crap. Tony Williams grabbed Jaco by the throat up against the wall, then restrained himself, turned and wrecked his own drumkit instead. Enough said.


aussenraum said...

Thanks for this entry! - it led my to buy "Emergency". I totally agree with what you wrote.