Monday, February 20, 2012

Brute/skittering: Tony Williams in the ’70s

Sometimes I get hung up on the details. Right now, it's the intro to "Fred," from the Tony Williams Lifetime's Believe It (1975). Six staggered bass-drum/crash-cymbal thumps, then a switch to the open hi-hat for one last washy punctuation mark. So sparse and so complete.

And Tony's performance on the piece itself: The pinnacle of "fusion" drumming, to my ears. That airy, syncopated groove on the opening theme, then the tension-building shift to the ride cymbal at 1:08 and the whitewater full-band accents / solo spots starting at 1:14. I love the muscle and the drive of this passage, the way Tony is just bashing, owning these breaks, knowing how badass he is. But I also love how he comes right back down to earth afterward: He resumes the opening groove (1:28), yet quickly thinks better of it, opting instead for a brisk, thrilling little cymbal swell.

Tony Williams in the ’60s (with Miles, and on Blue Note, with Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur, Andrew Hill and others) was one of the sounds that initially sold me on jazz. I checked out his early work with Lifetime in college and then had a real moment with it last year. For whatever reason, though, I hadn't followed the thread further until pretty recently. Believe It is my latest Williams obsession, and I feel as strongly about it as I do re: any of his work. If there is such a thing as jazz-rock drumming (something I've been pondering in my Heavy Metal Bebop series, i.e., is it possible for one player to excel at both of these styles, either independently or simultaneously, given their disparate demands?), this is as good as it gets. You have true brute punch on one hand, and on the other, Williams's patented elasticity, a skittering nimbleness, like the aural equivalent of one of those basilisks sprinting over the surface of the water.

I've also been exploring Williams's sideman work from around this time. The performance below, with Stan Getz, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke (the same band on Captain Marvel) kills me. The dress, the sound, the attitude. I love how Williams sort of cocks his head to the side before he starts, like, "Are we ready to melt some faces? Okay then." Dig the extended close-up at 4:10.

And then this one, with Clarke again, and Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. (I think both of these clips are from ’72.) Check out the virtuosic pugilism around 3:10, and the way Tony eases the feel down to light swing at 3:30. It's one of those patented on-a-dime Williams transitions; he never seemed to require any significant amount of runway in order to smoothly land the 747.

For any Williams buffs reading this, what are your favorite Tony performances from the ’70s and beyond? Million Dollar Legs, the follow-up to Believe It, has a terrible reputation, but I'm looking forward to an in-depth firsthand study. Other records that intrigue me: Didier Lockwood's New World (recorded 1979), Michael Mantler's Movies (’77) and the super-rare 1980 Williams session Play or Die. I'm not well-versed in the later, more postboppish Blue Note period either. Would greatly appreciate any recommendations.

P.S. [After the fact] Another record that merits mention is Hal Galper's Now Hear This (recorded 1977). Williams goes tornado at the end of the title track.

P.P.S. There is also, of course, the Man Jazz meltdown that is Trio of Doom.


Phil said...

Tony Williams is definately one of the best ever. He left us too soon, for sure.
Thanks for sharing these recommendations and videos. I haven't heard 'Play Or Die' but I am eager to hunt it down.

Have you heard any of the Arcana albums? Masterminded by Bill Laswell...the 2nd album is Tony Williams last recording and is well worth checking out.

Anonymous said...

ron carter's 1982 joint "etudes" is pretty slammin'. it's in a straight-ahead mode, more or less, but tony's drum sound is unmistakably 70s/80s. some of the tunes are tony-composed as well.