Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Williams, Tony (Anthony Tillmon)

"Four-limb independence," the ability to sustain four rhythmic ideas at once, has become an essential skill for modern drummers, and Tony Williams helped make it so. During his tenure in Miles Davis’s quintet, he not only blurred barlines, but shifted entire tempos, expanding the flexibility of collective jazz improvisation.

Williams shares a class with Elvin Jones at the very top of post-bop drumming, but his role as a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion with his group Tony Williams Lifetime on tracks such as "Red Alert" earned him the status of the most influential drummer to emerge out of the 1960s.

Anthony Tillmon Williams was born on December 12, 1945 in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. Encouraged by his father Tillmon, a trumpeter, Anthony picked up the drums by age eight. By age 12, Williams began seriously gigging around the city. Noticing the boy's prodigious talent, his father enrolled him in lessons with Boston drummer and educator Alan Dawson.

At 13, Tony Williams was performing with saxophonist Sam Rivers, and over the next few years earned a reputation as a drumming prodigy. By 1959, barely 17 years of age, he was invited to play with Jackie McLean in New York. A few months later, when Miles Davis decided to assemble a new group with George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter, he chose the teenaged Williams to complete the lineup.

Williams’s youthful influence was evident from the first note he played with Miles Davis’s Classic Second Quintet. While Williams was but one of the bop and post-bop drummers who sought to liberate the drummer from his role as strict timekeeper to interacting member, Williams intuited a new direction to take collective improvisation.

Where other drummers were content to blur barlines and add polyrhythm to their improvisatory statements, Williams superimposed tempos on top of tempos, constantly shifting in and out of half-time, double-time, and quarter-note- and eighth-note-triplet feels – sometimes only for measures at a time. This monumental accomplishment, combined with his clean, crisp cymbal sound and truly prodigious four-limb independence, provided a musical elasticity never before heard in the jazz world.

The Davis rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams first assembled to record three tunes for his 1963 album Seven Steps to Heaven. Early in the quintet's tenure, the group featured Davis on trumpet and George Coleman on tenor sax. The classic 1964 live recordings My Funny Valentine and Four and More launched Williams into the drumming elite at the ripe age of 18.

As if this were not enough, Williams also appeared at in 1963 on Jackie McLean’s Vertigo, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, Herbie Hancock’s My Point of View, and Kenny Dorham’s Una Mas.

Among the sessions Williams participated in during his tenure with Davis are Herbie Hancock’s 1764 Empyrean Isles, which "Cantaloupe Island," tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers’ Fuchsia Swing Song, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, which featured “Straight Up and Down,” and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, which included the classic opening track “Refuge.” In 1965, he also appeared on Hancock’s Maiden Voyage and Wayne Shorter’s The Soothsayer.

Tony Williams also began releasing dates as a leader during his time with Davis. In 1964, he released Life Time, a collection of richly improvised, Williams-penned originals which feature Sam Rivers, Bobby Hutcherson, Herbie Hancock, Richard Davis and Gary Peacock. While this record is all acoustic, it hints at the freely improvised material that would continue to grace Williams’s material as a leader.

Following Coleman’s departure from the Davis Quintet, Sam Rivers briefly joined the group to record the interesting 1964 live album Live in Tokyo.Shortly thereafter, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter joined the group, which created the lineup and sound of the “Classic Second Quintet.”

The earliest recording of this group in 1965, E.S.P,.demonstrates the group's raw talents. Later that year, they assembled at Chicago’s The Plugged Nickel nightclub and performed some of the most adventurous standards ever played, significantly expanding the possibilities of jazz played by small groups. The track "Four” from this session is a fine example of Williams’s intense swinging style from these classic sessions

After a year together, the group entered the studio in 1966 and produced some of their finest material for the albumMiles Smiles. The album features a sharp increase in the group’s freer, polyrhythmic playing: 6/4 and 4/4 time signatures appear simultaneously on the track “Footprints,” and there is an even greater increase in the free rhythmic space on the track “Circles.” “Freedom Jazz Dance,” also from this album, displays one of Williams’s most famous triplet-filled grooves.

The quintet recorded and released two more albums, Sorcerer and Nefertiti in 1967, which further evidenced the group's collective “free-bop” mentality through modal-based improvisations and spacious rhythmic interplay. The albums Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro followed in 1968, and introduced electric bass, piano, and guitar – slowly suggesting the route by which both Davis and Williams would take after the group disbanded. The track "Stuff". exemplifies the loose, electric/acoustic direction of the late quintet’s work.\

The album In a Silent Way marked the beginning of Davis’s electric period, and his final recorded association with Williams. Augmenting the quintet with additional electric players on tracks such as “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” and “Shhh/Peaceful” ushered in a new era in jazz, which may have inspired Williams to break off from Davis’s group to form his own influential fusion group.

After leaving Miles’s group, Williams put together a group called Tony Williams’ Lifetime, not to be confused with the similarly-titled 1964 album, with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. Emergency! was their debut release, which featured a groundbreaking fusion of jazz and rock. The electrifying “Spectrum” is a fine example of this innovative sound. The album Ego! followed in 1970, on which Ted Dunbar replaced McLaughlin on guitar. McLaughlin returned later that year, along with ex-Cream bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce, ro record the album Turn it Over, also from 1970, which featured “Vuelta Abajo.”

In the early to mid-1970s, Williams appeared on Stan Getz’s Captain Marvel album as well as Stanley Clarke’s 1974 self-titled record, before reforming his Lifetime group for two additional records: Believe It in 1975 and 1976’s Million Dollar Legs. This incarnation of the group included pianist Alan Pasqua, guitarist Allan Holdsworth, and bassist Tony Newton. The intense “Red Alert,” from Million Dollar Legs, appropriately represents the electric fusion of this incarnation of the band.

In mid-1977, Williams reunited with Davis alumni Hancock, Carter and Shorter to record an album entitled V.S.O.P. –The Quintet, which included memorable tracks such as "One of a Kind." When Miles turned down the opportunity to reunite with his former bandmates, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard was invited to complete the lineup. Together, the band went on the release another recording, Tempest in the Coliseum, taken from a live performance in Japan in 1977.

In the mid to late 1970s, Williams recorded with Hank Jones and Ron Carter for a two-volume collection entitled The Great Jazz Trio at the Village Vanguard. He also recorded two records with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter in 1977 Herbie Hancock Trio and Third Place. He also recorded memorably with Sonny Rollins, Weather Report and Joe Henderson.

Williams’s schedule slowed a bit as the 1980s emerged, but only in comparison to his non-stop work since his arrival in New York twenty years earlier. He continued recording and performing with Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock, and recorded with Dexter Gordon in 1985 for the Other Side of Round Midnight, Allan Holdsworth in 1986 on Atavachron, and Carlos Santana on 1980’s Swing of Delight and 1987’s Blues for Salvador.

In 1985, Williams invited Wallace Roney and Mulgrew Miller to participate on the session for Foreign Intrigue along with Ron Carter, Donald Harrison, and Bobby Hutcherson. A few years later, he kept Roney and Miller on board and built a long-standing quintet with saxophonist Bill Pierce and bassists Charnett Moffett, Bob Hurst, or Ira Coleman. The quintet can be heard on 1987’s Civilization, 1988’s Angel Street, and 1989’s Native Heart.

Work with longtime collaborators Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter continued into the 1990s, as well as recorded work with many new faces, including Geri Allen, Michel Petrucciani, Jimmy Cliff, Bernie Worrell and Yoko Ono. Since his jazz/rock fusion breakthroughs of the 1970s, Williams participated in both jazz and rock/world music recordings, as evidenced by work with Cliff, Worrell and Ono.

Two of Williams’s final studio projects represent some of his most interesting recorded work. On 1996’s Wilderness, Williams recorded with an all-star quintet of Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke. A full string orchestra appears on some cuts, playhing parts Williams wrote and arranged himself. Also in 1996, just six months before his death, Williams recorded Young at Heart with Mulgrew Miller and Ira Coleman.

Living in the San Francisco Bay area, Williams entered the hospital for a routine gall bladder procedure in February of 1997. He suffered a fatal heart attack on February 23, 1997, to the shocking heartbreak of all who knew Williams to be in good health and spirits. He was 51 years old. He was survived by his wife, Colleen.

Tony Williams may have been the most technically gifted drummer to ever grace jazz’s stage. At age 17, he was certainly able to execute ideas that most 20-year-veterans could only shake their heads at. But it’s ultimately Tony Williams - the musician and innovator,– in addition to Tony Williams – the drummer – that history will remember.

Select Discography:

As a Leader:

Life Time (1964), Emergency! (1969), Turn it Over (1970), Ego (1970), Believe It (1975) Million Dollar Legs (1976), Foreign Intrigue (1985), Civilization (1986), Angel Street (1988), Native Heart (1989), Tokyo Live (1992), Wilderness (1996), Young at Heart (1998)

With Miles Davis:

Seven Steps to Heaven (1963), Four and More (1964), My Funny Valentine (1964), Live in Tokyo (1964), E.S.P. (1965), The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965), E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Nefertiti (1967), Sorcerer (1967), Files de Kilimanjaro (1968), Miles in the Sky (1968), In a Silent Way (1969)

Additional Recordings:

Una Mas (Kenny Dorham, 1963), Empyrean Isles (Herbie Hancock, 1964), Fucshia Swing Song (Sam Rivers, 1964), Out to Lunch (Eric Dolphy, 1964), Point of Departure (Andrew Hill, 1964), Maiden Voyage (Herbie Hancock, 1965), Captain Marvel (Stan Getz, 1972), There Comes a Time (Gil Evans, 1975), Hear and Now (Don Cherry, 1976), Quintet (V.S.O.P., 1976), Third Plane (Ron Carter w. Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, 1977), Mr. Gone (Weather Report, 1978), Electric Guitarist (John McLaughlin, 1979), Relaxin’ at Camarillo (Joe Henderson, 1979), Quartet (Herbie Hancock, 1981), Other Side of Round Midnight (Dexter Gordon, 1985), Countdown (Mulgrew Miller, 1988), Marvellous (Michel Petrucciani, 1994)

Contributor: Eric Novod