Tony Williams: Miles to Lifetime
Drummer Tony Williams began his career with Jackie McLean at age 16, and by the time he was 17, Tony began playing with the jazz legend Miles Davis. He was a jazz drummer who left his own signature stamp on the traditional swing feel, but was also a key figure in the jazz fusion movement. This music fused jazz with rock and latin rhythms. Listening to his transition form swing to fusion is an important part of jazz drum history.
First, let’s look at some timekeeping from the first album he cut with Miles Davis in 1963, called “Seven Steps to Heaven”. Tony was able to swing like the greats and make it sound completely his own.
Notice that Tony does not play the typical “spang-spang-alang” ride pattern throughout the entire passage; rather he orchestrates his ride cymbal around the comping patterns. To place emphasis on the “and” of three in measure three he precedes it by two ride cymbals strokes followed by the third coinciding with his targeted accent (the “and” of three). This would become a signature sound of Tony’s ever-evolving ride beat.
Miles began to get into the fusing of new rhythms into his music in the late 1960s and the record “Files de Kilimanjaro” is an example of that. In this we see Tony evolving into a groove oriented player as opposed to the constant and dynamic improviser he had been early on in the group. On the title track of the album, Tony lays down some time for the rest of the group in a simple way.
At around one minute into the tune the group switches to 4/4 time and Tony begins to play a little busier to match the growing intensity of the players.
Once the craziness settles, Tony begins to lay down a subtle clave for the tune and grooves with some variation off of this key rhythm.
When Tony Williams Lifetime recorded their debut album “Emergency!” in 1969, the group’s sound was based off of the technical abilities and musical awareness of jazz with the high energy of rock. On this record Tony did not feel the need to play as many ostinato/groove based patterns as we previously saw with “File de Kilimanjaro”, rather he used an improvisational approach coupled with the high-energy feeling to propel the band in this new music. This selection off of the introduction to the tune “Vashkar” is a perfect example.
He still carries his unique phrasing over, by accenting the upbeat on the last beat of measure twelve instead of the downbeat of the next measure, but still gives us a perfect rocking resolution of the sixteen bar phrase with accented downbeats on the snare and ride with upbeats on the bass drum.
After this album the drumming in the group’s material ranged from this improvisational jazz/rock feel to subtler grooves like we saw in “File de Kilimanjaro”.
Tony Williams was a constant innovator for the instrument in the jazz and rock idioms, as we have seen here. His evolution did not stop after these records and songs listed, it continued until he passed away in 1997.