I didn't know what to make of Tony Williams's "There Comes a Time" when I first heard it, on a used copy of the 1971 Ego LP that I picked up in college. The raw, gnashing instrumentals on Emergency! were much closer to what I was seeking from Williams's Lifetime band, and the presence of vocals on that record and on Ego baffled and even bugged me. I don't feel that way anymore. When I reexamined Emergency! last year, Williams's dreamy recitation on the track "Where" ("Wheeeeere are you going? Wheeeeere do you come frooooom?") really struck me. A psychedelia time capsule, sure, but also an effective interlude on a loud, brash album. (I'll admit that I still have trouble sitting through the monologue on "Beyond Games.")
The key Williams vocal performance, though, is "There Comes a Time." What a strange, strange song… It's built around this swelling, snowballing odd-time swing vamp (I think it's technically 5/4, but I find it easier to count as ten beats). On the original Ego version, the organ of Larry Young (billed as Khalid Yasin) adds a glimmering haze to the steady, ominous march of Ron Carter's bass line, while Ted Dunbar layers juicy guitar twang on top. Williams works up to a bashing cymbal froth, and around the 3:00 mark, the vocals finally emerge:
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
It's a cryptic, vaguely unsettling sentiment, which takes on added menace in the next verse:
There comes a time when you're helpful
There comes a time when you're doubtful
I love you more when you're spiteful
That "spiteful" gets me every time. One word that encapsulates this entire weird, creeping shadow of a song.
The critical consensus seems to be that Williams's vocals are a nuisance. (Think of Ornette's equally maligned work on violin and trumpet.) "Unfortunately, both of those tracks ['There Comes a Time' and another Ego song 'Lonesome Wells (Gwendy Trio)'] are bogged down by vocals (by Williams and Jack Bruce, respectively) singing Williams' own earnest and not terribly inspired verse," Stewart Mason asserts at AllMusic.
I would side with the ever-broad-minded Gil Evans (recall his Hendrix tributes), who elevated the song to something like standard status on his 1976 album There Comes a Time, and then later performed it with Sting. It's something of a shock to hear the Police-man state, "This is a song by Tony Williams" in the clip below (almost as though he were shouting out Cole Porter or some other well-known Great American Songbooker), but he does a great job with the piece.
Here's the original "There Comes a Time," from Ego:
Here's the Ego incarnation of Lifetime performing the track live in ’71:
Here's the Gil Evans Orchestra's 1976 interpretation [Billy Harper on gut-busting tenor]:
Here's a take by a later Lifetime lineup (’79, I think) ["There Comes a Time" starts at 20:53]:
Here's a version, strangely retitled "Lawra," from Williams's elusive 1980 trio album, Play or Die [Tony's voice still sounds great]:
And here's Sting's "There Comes a Time," with the Evans Orchestra (’87) [I believe that's George Adams on backing vox and tenor]:
Anyone know of any additional versions of this underrated Williams classic? You'd think that Sting's performance would've inspired other singers to give it a shot.