Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tony Williams 1945-1997: The Unpredictable in Jazz Drumming

“Though regarded as one of the greatest drummers in the 20th century, in many ways Tony Williams remains un-credited with his contributions to American music. Speak to his collaborators and the musicians he has influenced about his music, and you often hear what amounts to mysteries and fables.”
- Ken Micallef, “Bridge to the Beyond,” down beat, November 2008

“Tony Williams was only seventeen years old when he joined [Miles] Davis in May 1963 …. Williams was so young that Davis faced problems with authorities when he was booked to play nightclubs where minors were not allowed. But Williams compensated for his lack of professional experience with an excess of power, passion and creativity – indeed no other percussionist in the history of Jazz ever played so well, so young.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, p. 333.

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Tony Williams literally walked into my life.

To digress for a moment, during most of the decade of the 1990s, I lived in San Francisco, but I could have lived anywhere because due to a dispersed, national group of clients, I traveled a portion of every week, every year for over a decade.

For a variety of reasons, all bad, San Francisco International Airport is a horrible place for the business traveler. Delays and flight cancellations are the rule rather than the exception, so I frequently found myself stranded following business meetings.

Fortunately, I worked for a major firm that allowed me to stay in a hotel of my choice while the company’s travel agents re-booked my flight home for the following day [hopefully].

One such incident occurred in October, 1993 when a cancelled flight to San Francisco found me staying over at the Palmer House in Chicago.

Of course, every Jazz fan has heard about Chicago’s legendary club – The Jazz Showcase. Founded in the late 1940’s by Joe Segal, it’s tenure as a club that featured top Jazz groups rivaled that of Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in New York.
Although I was aware of its existence, I had never been there.  Being marooned overnight in Chicago one autumn night gave me the opportunity to do so.

When I asked at the hotel’s Concierge Desk if they could help with directions to the club, one of the gentlemen there looked up at me, gently smiled and in a wonderful accented voice asked: “Fancy short walk do you?” I found out later that it was a Yorkshire accent in which the use of articles such as “the” and “a” are dropped.

Now, October is generally an absolutely gorgeous month in Chicago weather-wise, so when I said I did, he continued: “Out front door of hotel, turn right down Monroe for block to Michigan Avenue, turn left, you’ll find it ways up on right in old Blackstone Hotel.”

Piece ‘o cake. Twenty minutes later I was in the beautiful lobby of the historic Blackstone with its aged, wood paneling and marble columns. I gather that Joe Segal had been forced to move The Jazz Showcase from a previous location and it was now housed in one of the hotel’s conference rooms just off the main lobby that had been re-fashioned for this purpose.

On the bill that evening was guitarist John Scofield who was fronting a trio that included Larry Goldings on piano and Hammond B-3 organ and Bill Stewart on drums.

There were more marble columns in the club area, in fact, these seemed so ubiquitous that they blocked a number of views of the stage. I glommed onto a small table off to the side of the stage with a perfect view of Bill Stewart [old habits die hard for drummers].

Just after the set began, someone was at my shoulder and pointing to the other chair at the table while asking: “Is anyone sitting here.”

I was so engrossed in watching Bill and listening to the music that I didn’t even look up to the male voice asking the question.  I just held out my hand in the direction of the chair and said: “It’s all yours.”
When the tune was finished, I looked over at my table guest, smiled and in a flash of recognition said” “You’re Tony Williams!” And he said: “Yes, I am, and you’re a drummer.”  “How did you know that?”, I queried. Tony offered: “The whole time you were digging Bill, your left foot was playing the high-hat on 2 and 4 and your right foot was feathering the bass drum on all 4 beats.”

And that’s how I met Tony Williams. He bought me a drink “ …for being kind enough to share ‘my’ table with him….”  I found out that, while he had been born in Chicago and was in town on some personal business, he too, lived in the San Francisco Bay area.

We talked about drums and drummers until Bill Stewart came by our table, and then all three of us talked about – you guessed it – drums and drummers.

When Bill left us to get ready for the next set, Tony shared how much he was enjoying writing for his own band and continuing his studies to expand his knowledge of music theory and harmony.

I had to confess that while I had been very familiar with Tony’s musical travels with Miles Davis in the 1960s and the group Lifetime in the 1970s, I had really lost touch with his career after that. 

He asked for my address in San Francisco and a short while later two Blue Note CDs that Tony had produced with his then current group, and for which he had written most of the music, arrived in my mailbox.

Later he sent me a copy of the CD Marvelous on which he appears with pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Dave Holland.

In the ensuing years, my world became professionally busier and, as it is sometimes wont to do, LIFE skipped a heartbeat and three years later in June, 1997 Tony was gone having died from complications following a surgery.

While working on the Davy Tough and Papa Jo Jones blog features, the JazzProfiles editorial staff began reflecting on who amongst contemporary Jazz drummers have been similarly influential in terms of setting trends in drumming styles?

The name that readily came to mind was Elvin Jones as elements of his method of playing have had a far-reaching influence of drummers such as Peter Erskine, Bill Stewart, Adam Nussbaum and a host of others. The way in which Elvin accented eight note and quarter note triplets and inflected them with the bass drum is everywhere apparent in the phrasing of many of today’s Jazz drummers.
But what of the influence of Tony Williams?  It’s there, but why is it harder to discern as compared with that of Elvin?  The answer may lie in Elvin’s predictability as compared with Tony’s unpredictability.

Although he would reconfigured them by beginning and ending on different parts of the drum kit, Elvin essentially played the same “licks” over and over again to create, what many describe as a “polyrhythmic” feeling or sound to his drumming.

With Tony, you never knew what was coming next; the licks and phrases were not repetitive so how could they be copied? How does one mimic unpredictability?

Instead of rudimental phrases, Tony Williams offered drummers a whole new concept of playing Jazz drums based around what has been described as “controlled chaos.” 

Tony underscored this tendency by making tempos sound “elastic” and by playing with intense swiftness and a pulsating forward motion.  All of these qualities became more pronounced in his playing as the years moved along.

The following description by Peter Watrous is an excellent overview of the elements and evolution of Tony’s approach to Jazz drumming:
“Early in his career he was the master of the ride cymbal. He liked a clean spare sound evoking the slight sizzle of fat in a frying pan, and often moved abruptly between light and cluttered textures. And in his swing, Mr. Williams was utterly committed. …

As part of the Miles Davis quintet rhythm section with Herbie Hancock on piano and Ron Carter on bass, Mr. Williams radically changed the way a band worked. In his hands, tempos were pliable, ….

Along with his band mates, Mr. Williams took group improvisation further than it had gone before, developing structural improvisations that made the form of a tune seem finally irrelevant to the music. Thirty years later, his early playing is still striking for its audacity; his capacity to listen, to hear within the group and augment the musical conversation, seemed unbounded.” [New York Times obituary, June 7, 2009].

Before moving on, let’s be clear about what type of drumming is being discussed here. This is not the unobtrusive playing-like-the-wind style of Jo Jones, or playing under a band like Davy Tough; Tony Williams drumming is pure, unadulterated, bombastic explosiveness.

In a 1992 interview he have to Bill Milkowski for the Modern Drummer, Tony stated:

“I like to play loud. I believe the drums should be hit hard.”

Maybe the reason that Tony’s style is so idiosyncratic is that he did not come up into the world of Jazz through the typical big band route.  And the reason for that is easy to understand because when Tony was growing up, primarily in the 1950’s, for all intents and purposes, big bands were a dying breed.

Perhaps another basis for the stylistic distinctiveness of Tony’s drumming is because it embraced the new, more complex Rock ‘n Roll that was just coming into existence as he was reaching his majority in the mid-to-late 1960s.

The infusion or inflection of Latin rhythms also gave Tony’s drumming another element of uniqueness in combination with other sources that he drew from outside the mainstream of the Jazz tradition.

As is the case with many creative young people, Tony was in-step with the influences around him; the influences of his time. His temperament seemed to prefer the inclusion of these seemingly disparate influences, rather than drawing lines or creating categories based around mutual exclusivity.

Given this process of development, Tony’s impressionistic and fiery timekeeping made an enormous contribution to the landmark series of recordings made by the Miles Davis Quintet in the late 1960’s including Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, E.S.P., Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro.

What was apparent in the 1960s was that Jazz was changing and, according to many, not necessarily for the better.  But this was largely the opinion of those Jazz fans who preferred the understated swing of the 1930s or the straight-ahead rhythms of the post World War II be-bop and hard bop eras.

The former group heralded the tap dance-like drumming of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson while the latter group preferred the driving propulsion of Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

Tony along with drummers of his generation and those that would follow, while certainly respectful and admiring of the technical ability of all these drummers, heard the music differently and wanted to incorporate other elements into their drumming in response to it.
Drummer Terri Lynne Carrington explains Tony’s significance this way:

“Every time I hear Tony I remember how great he is. It’s always fresh and amazing. Tony brought the drums to the forefront more than ever. He took from Roy Haynes and moved it forward in his own way. I hate to talk in absolutes, but he made the greatest individual personal statement on the instrument ever. His technique was incredible and he had the most important element – time feel.”

Put another way from drummer Peter Erskine:

“Words seem inadequate to describe his work with Miles, and how new it was and yet completely tied into tradition. … all of a sudden the drums were right in your face, the visceral reaction was that it was one of drumming’s biggest shots across the bow.”

And this from drummer Bill Stewart about Tony’s seminal recordings with Miles:

“One of the things I love about Tony’s playing in this period is his listening ability, his interaction and timing. He plays these interactive things at moments in the music that propel the music forward. It’s about the spaces he plays those things in…. The other thing that crept into his playing was using the hi-hat on all fours sometimes.”

These late 1960’s recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet on which Tony appears as such a dominant force are a dividing line of sorts for those Jazz fans who prefer the group’s from the period from 1955-1965.
In this later period, Miles continued to push forward and explore new areas for his music through the use of electronic instruments, primarily keyboards and guitar, percussion instruments that are played either in Latin rhythms [including the newly arrived bossa nova] or freely to add tonal colors and cross rhythms and by using rock beats.  Add to this what has been described as Tony Williams “scorched earth campaign” drumming, and it is easy to understand why those who preferred more traditional Jazz styles could become disenchanted with this music, let alone overwhelmed by it.

As drummer Billy Hart explicates:

“When Tony joined Miles … he had been a prolific young student under Alan Dawson. Tony had figured out the bebop guys, and that they were playing Latin from Dizzy and Bird’s interest in Afro-Cuban. Around the same time, the Brazilian thing hit. Tony had the advantage over the previous bebop drummers in that he could compare the Cuban vocabulary with the Brazilian. … Tony was in a position to use all incoming styles as part of his vocabulary.”

What super-charged all of this was Tony’s whole-hearted embracing of rock drumming and the manner in which he infused it into Jazz, especially of Miles’ Filles de Kilimanjaro and one particular tune on this album – Frelon Brun.

Drummer Lennie White details the significance of this turn of events as follows:

“Tony plays Jazz-Rock, not Fusion. The connotation is different. Added to this was another innovation in the way he got a whole new drum sound with his larger kit and the way played eight notes and back beats. Tony played grooves and beats with a Jazz sensibility. He played his grooves on the sock cymbal. He’s got Papa Jo Jones up top with his back beat stuff on the bottom with bass drum and snare, playing in between like a great Jazz drummer would. He’s playing the history of Jazz drumming, because he is comping. He never forgot his roots.”

In 1998, the year following Tony Williams’ death, the Mike Zwerin published a feature for www.culturekiosque.com entitled Tony Williams: Finding His Beautiful Vase in which he commented:

“He would not be who he is without those he learned from. It’s a matter on universality. As he learned technique, he also learned that the drums are more important than he is.

He compares the learning process to a dusty living room. You’re comfortable there, it’s home, but one day you see something in the corner that attracts your eye. You never saw it before. To get it, you have to move everything and clean the dust.  Williams cleaned and cleaned and found his beautiful vase. Improvising is about being able to clean your dust, to find the vase and to recognize that it is beautiful in itself.” …

An optimist by nature, Williams does not believe in the good old days. He will not hold on to the past, he can envision the days when he will no longer play the drums.

The drummer never stops playing back there – there are aching feet, ankles, thighs, hips and elbows. He cannot imagine himself doing that forever. Plus, he loves being in his home south of San Francisco, even when he’s staring at the walls.

P.S. All hats off to Tony Williams. RIP.”