The following feature on drummer, bandleader and composer, Tony Williams has been revised to include below "A Lesson from Tony" sent to us from drummer Ed Soph who teaches at the University of North Texas and the Tony Scherman Interview with Tony that appeared in the March, 1992 edition of Musician Magazine and which originally featured on these pages as a separate postings. This represents another of our efforts to "put it all in one place" so that these combined features might be easier to research in the future.
The original posting about Tony Williams has consistently been one of the most popular pieces on the blog having received almost 12,500 hits to date.
To put it mildly, Tony Williams' drumming on Miles Davis' 1963 recording of Seven Steps to Heaven shocked the Jazz world in general and Jazz drummers in particular.
The original posting about Tony Williams has consistently been one of the most popular pieces on the blog having received almost 12,500 hits to date.
To put it mildly, Tony Williams' drumming on Miles Davis' 1963 recording of Seven Steps to Heaven shocked the Jazz world in general and Jazz drummers in particular.
No one had ever played Jazz drums like that before.
Bar lines disappeared; solos stopped and started everywhere and anywhere; drums crackled, popped and exploded; cymbals splashed and crashed in unexpected places; the hi-hat was played on four-beats-to-the-bar almost as though it were being danced on; the metronomic pulse that underscores Jazz became heightened and unrelenting.
Tony pushed, shoved and pulled the momentum of the music unceasingly, almost unmercifully at times.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Pianist Victor Feldman, who was himself a master drummer, and who essentially wrote the title tune with a few additions by Miles, was scheduled to play on that date along with Los Angeles-based drummer, Frank Butler.
Although Victor and Frank did play Seven Steps to Heaven with Miles, along with Joshua, another original by Victor, and the other songs on the LP [Victor's arrangement of Basin Street Blues remains a masterpiece of re-harmonization] during Miles' brief stint on the West Coast in 1963, Victor was too busy in the Los Angeles studios [and Frank had other stuff going on] and didn't make the trip back to New York to record his two original compositions with Miles for Columbia [CL 2051].
Enter Tony Williams' stunning recording debut on Seven Steps to Heaven.
The rest as they say is history.
“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]
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.” Davis
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
, 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. San Francisco
For a variety of reasons, all bad,
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. San Francisco International Airport
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
found me staying over at the Palmer House in San Francisco . Chicago
Of course, every Jazz fan has heard about
’s legendary club – The Jazz Showcase. Founded in the late 1940’s by Joe Segal, its tenure as a club that featured top Jazz groups rivaled that of Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard in Chicago . New York
Although I was aware of its existence, I had never been there. Being marooned overnight in
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
and was in town on some personal business, he too, lived in the Chicago area. San Francisco Bay
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
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. San Francisco
Later he sent me a copy of the CD Marvelous on which he appears with pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist
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
, even when he’s staring at the walls. San Francisco
P.S. All hats off to Tony Williams. RIP.”
Part 2: Tony Williams - The Tony Scherman Interview
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
A LESSON FROM TONY WILLIAMS
“When I was a kid, for about two years I played like Max Roach. Max is my favorite drummer. Art Blakey was my first drum idol, but Max was the biggest. So I would buy every record I could with Max on it and then I would play exactly what was on the record, solos and everything. I also did that with Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes, and all of the drummers I admired. I would even tune my drums just like they were on the record.
People try to get into drums today, and after a year, they’re working on their own style. You must first spend a long time doing everything that the great drummers do. Then you can understand what it means. Not only do you learn how to play something, but you also learn why it was played. That’s the value of playing like someone. You can’t just learn a lick; you’ve got to learn where it came from, what caused the drummer to play that way, and a number of things. Drumming is like an evolutionary pattern.”
Our recent re-posting of an earlier piece on the late drummer Tony Williams [1945-1997] generated a lot of interest including a very nice note from drummer Ed Soph who teaches at the University of North Texas admonishing us for not saying more about the role of Tony’s teacher Alan Dawson in helping to shape Williams’ exciting approach to drumming.
Ed also kindly sent along the “Lesson from Tony” that opens this feature.
The earlier piece on Tony also overlooked other aspects of his later career particularly his tremendous accomplishments as a composer, arranger and bandleader, the latter during a time in the mid-1980’s when very few new, modern Jazz quintets were being formed.
The following interview by Tony Scherman is intended to rectify some of these omissions.
Very sadly, five short years after the interview was conducted, Tony would be dead from complication following an appendix surgery.
Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Growing: Tony Williams Reinvents Himself
“This may sound self-aggrandizing, but playing the drums was always easy for me. From an early age, it was so easy to figure stuff out it was almost embarrassing. I needed to prove to myself that I was deserving of all the praise, needed to feel that I'd accomplished something—that I had accomplished something, the person that I am. I needed to tackle something that was hard, that wasn't God-given, and see it grow. That's what writing music has been, and is, for me. I had to go get a teacher, I had to study composition for seven years. That was work. Writing music, that's work. Drumming has never been work, it's always been fun. It's still fun. So I could never put the word 'work' in my life, and how can you be a success to yourself if you've never had to work?"
As he enters middle age, Tony Williams looks less and less African American, more and more exotic, near-Eastern: Persian, Lebanese, Assyrian. In profile, his nose hooks luxuriantly. His big almond-shaped eyes are sleepy and liquid; their blank stare can be unnerving. He wears his hair semi-straightened now, brushed back into a stiff little ducktail, and with his lazy rolling gait and odd-shaped body—thick biceps, thick waist—he looks like an ill-tempered Buddha.
Tony Williams—a handful. He plays like the rushing wind, like an avalanche, like a natural disaster. People look at each other and start to laugh, he's so good, so loud, so unapologetically in their faces. There's nothing polite about Tony Williams's drumming, nor anything overly diplomatic about him. He's testy, suspicious, self-involved. Still, the gibe I've heard more than once—"the only thing bigger than Tony Williams's talent is his ego"—strikes me as untrue. Beneath the cold manner flickers a real vulnerability: unhealed wounds. I'll bet he's easily devastated. Something gnaws at this guy, some basic insecurity, and if it makes him difficult and defensive, it's also made him hungry to learn. How many drummers can write a fugue? Compose for string quartet? Organize a spectacularly tight five-man jazz group and write every bit of its thirty-song repertoire—sinuous, muscular, haunting pieces? Williams's composing hasn't yet approached the level of his playing (how many drummers could you non-fatuously call "the world's greatest"?), but his achievement is pretty amazing: He's willed a new facet of himself into being.
Back in 1963, Tony was already working hard, if somewhat in the dark, at composing. "When I was a kid I thought this was what you did: you worked at whatever there was to get better at. Being a good musician meant to keep studying, keep learning. You didn't just specialize. Even back then, the thing that drove me on was wanting to do more, to have a say, to create an atmosphere."
Herbie Hancock, a former prodigy himself, was a suave twenty-three to the kid's eager-beaver seventeen. "Tony was always calling me up: 'Hey man! What's happening!' and I'd think, 'Aw kid, don't bothah me!' and try to gracefully get him off the phone." Callow or not, the kid was an astonishing drummer. When the pair joined the Miles Davis Quintet that spring, says Hancock, "I very quickly went from thinking of Tony as someone who was a real good drummer for a kid to realizing he was a great drummer who happened to be a kid." Thirty years later, Hancock is still an intrigued Williams-watcher. "Tony Williams," he says, "is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known."
When Tony wrote the songs for his first album, 1964's Life Time, he played piano with two fingers, "one on his right hand," says Hancock, "one on his left. No chords really, just two lines, and I had to write out the notes for him. His writing was very raw. But I wasn't about to dismiss something because it was a two-fingered composition; knowing the kind of mind Tony had, I just wanted to not get in his way, to help him realize whatever he had in the back of his head. And I still think the compositions on those first two albums [Life Time and Spring] were great.
"Today he's mastered the vocabulary, but without losing the beauty of that rawness. He's got a full palette now, from angular and surprising to very singable, very beautiful in the conventional sense. My feeling is, he has really got the compositional approach down. Tony doesn't need to study with anybody, at least not for a long while! I'll put it this way. Wayne Shorter and Stravinsky are my favorite composers of all time. Tony is developing so quickly as a composer that he's already one of my favorite jazz composers, and maybe moving toward being one of my favorite composers, period. I absolutely like his pieces that much."
Miles liked them, too; the Davis Quintet's classic Sixties albums are sprinkling Williams tunes like "Pee Wee" and "Hand Jive." But for Tony, "writing always felt hit-and-miss: 'Maybe this'll work, maybe it won't, why won't it?'" He had taken sporadic private lessons in theory and harmony since the mid-Sixties; 1979, however, was a turning point. He'd left Manhattan for the San Francisco Bay Area (where he still lives) "feeling in a hole, in a rut; 1 felt like 1 wasn't doing what I had the talent to do: write music, have a band, have better relationships." He thought about quitting music. Instead, he started private lessons in composition, mostly with Robert Greenberg, a young composer and university professor.
"It was a regular course of study, like at a university. You do a lot of analyzing of other people's work: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. I started with species counterpoint, went to intermediate forms of counterpoint, like canons, then invertible counterpoint, like fugues, and on to larger forms of composition—minuet and trio, theme and variations, rondo, that type of thing. It's all about learning how to weave structure and melody into a composition." When a recharged Williams launched his quintet in 1986, some of the band's best pieces came straight from his exercise book—"Arboretum" was an assignment in counterpoint, "Clear Ways" in voice-leading. Tony left Greenberg three years ago; "the band started working so much, I couldn't do my lessons. But 1 plan to go back and pick up where I stopped."
Before 1979, Williams says, "I knew everything there is to know about harmony and theory. What I mean is, I had a good solid grounding in all that stuff. But I didn't know how to organize. You might know emotionally what you want to say, but then it becomes a matter of getting the material to move where you want it to. It's problem-solving. For me it was like, 'I know there's a problem here but I don't know what it is.' When I come up to a problem now, I can pinpoint it. On paper. I can look at it and say, 'Oh, that's the problem and it's because of this, this and this, so if I adjust this, take that out, move this in'... problem solved."
What kind of problem, how to resolve a chord? "No, not how to resolve a chord, that's easy. How to expand an idea. How to make it go somewhere and then return. My big problem used to be that I agonized over things. I'd get an idea and not know what to do with it. Now when I get an idea, I know what to do. Writing is just being able to, as Bob Greenberg used to say, push notes around. Make the notes do what you want them to do.
"Sometimes when I was studying I'd wonder, 'What the hell am I doing? Will there come a time when I'll use this stud'and say, "Oh, this is why you've spent six, seven years staying up and writing these lessons out and driving back and forth to Berkeley three times a week?" ' But my insides would tell me, 'This is what you should be doing.' And now I can say, 'Yes! This is why I was doing it.'"
"What's the payoff?"
Long pause... "The fact that you're here. How's that? See, not only am I not just a drummer, I'm not just a musician either. I'm a person. A lot of things that are valid for me aren't only in musical terms. The fact that you're here and we're talking about what I've written, it tells me all those lessons have paid oil, are bringing me attention, it shows me I've done things people are interested in."
"Well, I like the songs. They stay in my mind."
"I'm glad. And that's why I wanted to study. I wanted to be able to write songs the way 1 knew I could, to present music my friends would like to hear, that would make people feel different things.
"So making the decision to study was easy. I make that kind of decision a lot. Moving to California was another of those things my insides told me to do. And after I got to California I decided to take swimming lessons. ["He did? Tony learned to swim? Aw, that's beautiful!"—Hancock.] I wanted to be able to go to a swimming pool and not just stand and wade; I got tired of going by the deep end and being scared. Now I can dive into the deep end. When I was in New York I was in therapy. In California, I have a therapist. It's helped me look at parts of my life 1Ineed to look at. It's the same kind of process—I'm always challenging myself to get better."
"Tony's composition, 'Sister Cheryl,'" says Herbie Hancock—"the first time I heard that tune [in 1982, when he and Williams played it on Wynton Marsalis's debut] I was shocked. Suddenly there was no more guesswork; Tony could really write chord changes. But what amazed me was that it was in a style that had eluded him for a long time. You know whal Tony once told me? That he wanted to be able to write a tune anybody could sing, like a very natural kind of pop melody. Not that 'Sister Cheryl' is pop— it isn't—but it's catchy. Tony was always asking me what I thought of this or that tune that he wrote. See, I can write melodies people can sing. Tony could never do that, not till then. In many ways—though it's not all the same, and it's definitely Tony's writing—'Sister Cheryl' reminded me of 'Maiden Voyage.' It's one of my favorite compositions ever.
"The way he wrote it, you just move the bass line and the chord will change radically. It starts on a B-major chord, but using the second instead of the third. It's B, C-sharp, F-sharp. With so few notes in the chord, you get lots of flexibility. From B-major it goes to A-flat minor 7— and everything from that first chord fits with the second chord. Then you go to A with a B-major. That's the theme. Now, all these chords fit with the B, C-sharp and F-sharp of the first chord, so by changing the bass line you've changed all the chords, but kept the harmony hanging over from that very first chord. The melody moves, the bass moves, but the harmony stays the same; the outer part changes, the inner part doesn't. It's a nice piece of work."
"Tony's harmonies are like a breath of fresh air," says the Williams Quintet's fine pianist, Mulgrew Miller. "Remember, we're talking about a jazz composer who isn't himself a harmonic and melodic improviser. So his progressions may be a little unorthodox—Tony didn't learn jazz writing by playing 'Stardust.' The standard iii-vi-ii-V-I turnaround, there's none of that. You won't hear many 32-bar choruses either: as long as the song needs to be, that's how long he writes 'em. And the keys he chooses are somewhat unusual. 'Sister Cheryl,' that's in B-major. Outside of practicing scales, I'd never even played in B-major; it's mostly sharps. A piano player might fool around with something in B and say, 'Hmmm, I like this progression, I think I'll move it down to E-flat.' Not Tony— it's B.
"He's got a tremendous set of ears and he loves harmony; he loves the color of complex chords. Catchy melodies are one of his traits, but catchy melodies with complex harmonies. The chord progressions and chorus lengths are almost always unconventional. And that goes back to Wayne Shorter. Listen to Wayne's 'Nefertiti.' Most of his pieces with Miles were like that: simple melody, complex harmony. A piece of Tony's like 'Two Worlds' is so melodic, if someone heard only the melody, they'd have no idea what harmonic convulsions, what explosions, are going on underneath. Of all Tony's pieces, that's probably the meanest ("Every time I call 'Two Worlds,' " says Williams, "I see at least one guy scrambling for the sheet music"]: a lot of changes at a fast tempo, and they're complex changes, like G 9 to A-flat major 7 to B-flat 11 to B-minor flat 6th. The challenge to the improvisor is finding the continuity in all these changes that don't relate!
"I just think Tony hears something different from most people. He's got influences, like Wayne and Herbie and contemporary classical music, but mainly it just comes from being an inventive person. It's the same thing that lets him play the way he does. From what I hear, Tony was challenging the accepted forms right from his earliest days. Listen to those records with Eric Dolphy. It's clear that even at the age of eighteen he was an advanced thinker,"
Tony Williams lit his third fat cigar in two hours. "It's a mark of a good song when anyone can play it, when it's so well-placed on the paper that it doesn't need a special interpretation, a great artist, to make it sound good." Brushing back the hotel-room curtain, he stood surveying Central Park West. He was beautifully dressed in a loose shirt, baggy winter pants and gorgeous two-toned shoes; circling his comfortable middle was the same metal-studded belt he'd worn the day before for his maiden voyage on David Letterman's TV show.
"It's like when you hear a hit song being played by some guy in a Holiday Inn bar and you say, 'Yeah, that's a great song.' Last night Paul Shaffer played 'Sister Cheryl' and it was a real turn-on. The song sounded so good. Those are good players, but what I'm saying is, the song translates easily from one group, one medium, to another; it doesn't take my band to play it.
"Or there's 'Native Heart'—the fact that I wrote that song (the title track on Williams's newest album] just knocks me out. It's like someone else wrote it and I'm getting a chance to play it. I worked on that song four, five months, playing it every day on the piano. It was crafted, like fine leather, like shoes."
"Could you analyze it for me?"
"No, I don't think I'd like to do that. Anyway, I can't. I write the songs and then I forget about them. It's up to the other guys to learn them. I don't need to. I'm playing the drums. Unless I'm working on a song, I can't tell you its chords; I'd have to go back to the piano with the music and I'd be able to play it after an hour or so. Besides, when you're writing, you have certain little things inside that tickle you, and you don't want to give them away. They wouldn't feel special if you flaunt them; it's like saying, 'Oooh, look how clever I am!' These things are private, they're little gems to me."
"But they're what's interesting: the things underneath."
"Yeah, and I'm interested in keeping them underneath. All I did in 'Native Heart' was invert the idea."
"Of the melody—?"
"—or the chords?"
[Coyly] "I don't want to give away all my secrets here! They're precious things!" Finally he relents. "Okay, what happened was, I had this idea and I wanted to make a song out of it." He sings a simple little eight-bar version of the melody. "In itself it was just an idea, just a real short thing. So first of all I had to weave length into it." Setting out, he broke the phrase into two-bar chunks and put a one-bar rest between each. More important, he rewrote it, introducing a subdominant in the eleventh measure so the tune didn't resolve so quickly. "All I did was put in a few new notes. And then the second time (he phrase comes around, you go right to the five chord, the dominant—bang!—and it resolves. So I aired it out, fleshed it out, by putting in the subdominant.
"Okay, now I had to figure out, 'Where is this song going?' I had this two-note thing happening in the melody [D to A, a fifth]. Now, I deeply wanted the song to sound organic. So what I did was, I took that two-note phrase and gradually stretched it [to a sixth, F to D and then G to E] while slowing it down. Then 1 compressed it [accelerating it as it descends toward the tonic]—and when you compress a figure it brings a sense of resolution. So that was the work I did [in bars 25-33] to give the song a middle part, a so-called bridge, that sounded like it belonged, that was part of the opening melody." Just to strengthen the connection, Tony took a phrase from the fourth and fifth bars of the opening melody, turned the notes—B, C, D and B—upside down, and made this the last two bars of the middle: "a mirror, a reflective callback," as he puts it, of the opening melody.
All he needed now was an ending. "I was going to end it one way, with a little phrase that kind of drifts off. I decided that was too protracted, even though 1 liked the phrase." So he wrote another ending: the opening melody, but with a few new intervals and one brand-new note, an A-flat: "It's a piece of music, and a note, that's never been heard in the song before, so it really puts a cap on things. And then 1 said, 'Hey, wait a minute'—and I took that first ending, the one I'd loved but hadn't used, and made it the intro and outro. It was perfect there." And he had his song: a sultry, moodily swirling 45-measure composition, patiently teased from an eight-bar scrap.
"I think more about these kinds of things than I do about drums. 'Cause like I said, the drumming has never been a problem for me. That was the problem! I felt like all everybody wanted was this drummer, that Tony Williams was not there, that I didn't matter. And it caused me a lot of emotional pain.
"I'm not talking about fans, I'm talking about people I worked with. That was the pain, that if I weren't this drummer I wouldn't have these people as my friends. And 1 realized that was true. Everything that went on told me that. There I was in New York by myself—seventeen, eighteen, nineteen—and the only reason I was here was because I played the drums as well as I did. It was strange, very strange. In Miles Davis's band I was the youngest, the smallest and, as I felt, the least educated. I didn't feel good about myself. So that's to answer your question why would a person who's good at one thing want to be good at something else too. And those are valid reasons.
"I'd like to write things I wouldn't have to play. I'd like to write for certain orchestras. I've never been the type that needed to play drums in order to feel like a person. I choose to play, it's my desire to play. I'm not the kind of guy that goes around with drumsticks in his hands beating on things. I could live without drumming. There was a couple of years when I didn't play at all; I just hung out, lived off the rent from a house I own uptown here. Because I don't need the drums, I think I play belter. I respect them too much to use them as a crutch. When I sit down at the drums it's because I want to; it's like 'I'm here to be your friend.'
"The drums are my best friend. The drums are the only thing I've been able to count on totally, except my mother— and sometimes when she gets pissed off, boy, she can give me a look.... If it weren't for the drums, I wouldn't be here. But I can listen to the drums in my head. I mean, I rarely, in the last ten years, get the feeling to just go downstairs and play drums. I never practice. I can not play for a year and it'll only take me a night or two to get back to where I was. After thirty-six years, there's a certain level you won't never go below."
Which leaves him free to chase his new passion. Last autumn, in "one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had," Williams performed his first extended composition, the fifteen-minute "Rituals: Music for Piano, String Quartet, Drums and Cymbals,” with the Kronos Quartet and Hancock. He's sniffing out the world of soundtracks: "I'd do basically anything, movies, TV, jingles, just to see how it came out." The quintet, finally getting its due as one of the best of jazz's small groups, is always digesting some new Williams piece, and he's also writing for an electric band (sax, guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums) he plans to start.
"The more I write, the easier it comes. And it's really a pleasure to be able to write something, have it make sense, and then play it: to have it be not just an exercise but something the other guys enjoy playing. That's more important to me than just being able to say 'I wrote this.'
"I'm really surprised I've had the emotional stamina to stay resilient. Especially considering how burnt out I was feeling maybe fifteen years ago. It took courage to put a band together when no one else was doing it, and to write all the music. I've had to put myself out there for the scrutiny of everyone, to write songs everyone would scrutinize and criticize and review and critique. That's something that's very scary. To have done it, and to have gotten the reaction I've had, has been very, very wonderful."
"But it shouldn't have been scary, you'd been writing for years."
"What do you mean 'shouldn't have been'? It just was. Like I said, my writing was not the kind of writing I would have wanted it to be. Now it is. But I had to trust that. So now, I've finally gained trust in these other parts of myself.
I’m not just ‘Tony Williams drummer.’ And that feels pretty neat.”