Some notes to the tunes on the Posi-tone album Juxtaposition

Marc Free of Posi-tone Records asked me to compose some notes to the tunes on Juxtaposition, released today, Friday, Feb 2, 2017. I was listening to a lot of Duke Ellington live recordings at the time, and the sound and cadence of Ellington's stage banter seems to have crept into my subconscious. I think these notes make more sense if you imagine Duke Ellington reading them out loud.

Imagine a small village in Tuscany. The church, at the center of town, with the beautiful bells in the tower, lets all the townspeople know the time of day. It’s sundown, the close of day, and as the CHIMES ring, the people stop working and begin all their nighttime activities. We make a Db blues out of this scene.

ST JEROME is the primary author of the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible, which was ‘the Bible’ in the Western world for nearly 1,000 years. Translating the Hebrew, he made a lot of mistakes, which is reflected by the dissonance between the saxophone melody and the piano harmony, and, armed with Latin scripture, the Church was ruthless in becoming a dominant cultural force, which you can hear in the bass line.

HOUSE ON HOXIE RD, WEST EDMESTON, NEW YORK is a portrait of a house where I spent a lot of time as a boy. The people in the house, as you’ll hear, were the best kind of people, as they lived with and laughed through some great sadness, which I hope the melody reflects.

On our title track, JUXTAPOSITION, Chris Speed and Bruce Barth freely improvise together for the first time in their respective careers. It’s a pleasure to hear them find each other, and a double pleasure to join them.

ALTER EGO is James Williams’ best-known composition, and a perfect self-portrait. He was a kind, generous, gentle, funny man, and I miss him dearly. I’d like to think he’d enjoy our rendition, which owes much to Victor Lewis’ version.

Tony Williams’ influence is everywhere on this album, and in music today generally, so it seemed appropriate to include one of his tunes. THIS NIGHT THIS SONG is from his Turn It Over album, which I think is a masterpiece. Maybe now you'll go hear it, if you haven't heard it yet. I simplified the form and added a little more harmony, to help the tune exist in this setting.

I wrote ONE HOUR in exactly that amount of time, for a gig with saxophonist Tony Malaby in 2009. I’ve played it on a lot of shows, with many different musicians, because it’s easy to play.  The melody sounds a lot like Cecil Taylor’s tune “Air”, which I hadn’t heard when I wrote the tune. Probably Cecil time traveled from 1960 to 2009, transformed himself into a grocery bag I carried into my house, stole my tune, and improved it. Oh, there's also a Ron Carter tune called Gypsy, which I heard for the first time in 2014, that is eerily reminiscent of this tune.

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s SOMEWHERE is the most beautiful, meaningful song of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Given the state of our country, and the despicable men governing us, I dedicate this performance to the dispossessed, silent, deprived, and despised humans of the US; to our immigrants, our native people, the brave people of Black Lives Matter, the pioneers for marriage equality and LGBTQ fighters, Syrian refugees, and the animals losing their habitat to climate change (ia result of unfair wealth distribution). I am with you, if I may be, and there’s a place for us. I re-worked the harmony, to make the tune “new” again, out of love.

The list of animals without food and habitat will soon include humans. The chord changes to WARM WINTER are meant to bring to mind the pleasant, unsettling feeling of warmer-than-usual weather, and the melody is the humans struggling to adapt and pretend that everything’s fine.

The year is 1908, the place is a beautiful, upper middle-class street in Prague, and the time is late afternoon, on a weekday. All the kids have finished their studies, and are now practicing their piano lessons. A young boy, 9 years old, bored with his piano practicing, improvises a melody on the piano, in the style of the melodies his grandmother sings. Our music world is deeply HELLENIZED, that is, inherited from the Greeks, and brought up in Europe.

The man comes home, from a good day at work. He is satisfied in his work, but lonely in his life. Night falls, loneliness creeps in, and, wishing to stave off despair but unwilling to debase himself, he consumes- food, drink, entertainment- with no one around. He is a SOLITARY CONSUMER, seen frequently in New York City. The melody and harmony refer to Ellington’s “In My Solitude’.

Though we are serious in our intent, jazz is not a formal, serious music. We let our inner goofiness and irreverence guide our instincts for the few pleasurable minutes we share at the end of this album, in SAY THE SECRET WORD.


Five Awkward Conversations With Paul Motian

Five Awkward Conversations With Paul Motian


Fall 2000, Sweet Basil's, Greenwich Village, NYC, late night. Paul Motian, legendary and beloved jazz drummer, is standing near the back of the club, to the right of the bandstand, with a cymbal bag. His band (The Electric Bebop Band, featuring, as best I remember, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Ben Monder on guitar, Chris Potter and Chris Cheek on tenor sax, with Tony Malaby subbing for Potter later that week, and Jerome Harris on electric bass) has just finished its second or third set. It's a weeknight, the club is mostly empty, and he's wearing a hat. VS, college kid and aspiring jazz drummer, is sitting at a table just to Paul Motian's right. This is the third time VS has heard Paul Motian play live. He loves and admires Paul's playing, is thrilled to have heard him tonight, and has been on the lookout for a chance to have a conversation with him. Fate seems to have given him the opportunity tonight, and he is ready. Both Paul Motian and VS are approximately the same height.

VS: (nervously, tiptoeing, excited):
Mr. Motian?

Paul Motian:(loud, brash, amused):
Hey! Yeah? What do YOU want man?

VS: (thrilled the great man has deigned speak to him)
Well, I was just….wondering……(knees actually knocking together here) if the last piece you played……was called…."Cabala".

Paul Motian: (intrigued but ready to be unimpressed, and speaking very loudly)

VS: (in an annoying tone)
Oh, I thought it was "Cabala" from the Le Voyage album.

Paul Motian: (exact same tone as previous, and practically shouting)

VS: (still pursuing…..what?)
If that's "Drum Music", then what piece is "Cabala"?

Paul Motian: (his voice has not modulated at all)

(Perplexed and aware that this exchange could go on indefinitely, it dawns on VS that a subject change might be in order)

VS: (reaching) Do you ever give drum lessons? (It immediately occurs to VS that this is a dumb question, and his face reflects this knowledge.)

Paul Motian: (now even more amused and somewhat less loud):
NO, no MAN I don't DO that, I don't know WHAT TO TEACH I HATE doing that shit man there was a kid in my building who said he wanted to play the drums and then when I saw HIM AGAIN HE HAD A CLARINET HA HA HA HA HA!!!! A CLARINET!

VS: (Relieved, hanging in there, thinking of something to ask, and being annoying):
Is the trio you have with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell going to play in town anytime soon?

Paul Motian: (now slightly irritated)
NO MAN WE WERE SUPPOSED TO PLAY FOR [period of time] AT [a jazz club in NYC] BUT [name omitted] DOUBLE BOOKED US (now actually yelling) AND WE HAD TO CANCEL MAN THAT PISSES ME OFF! MAN THAT PISSES ME OFF…..

VS: (Eager to end the yelling that his question has brought on. But still being annoying.)
Well, I hope I get to see the trio sometime. Thanks for the music tonight!

Paul Motian: (aroused out of his ire, terse and loud but polite somehow, making eye contact) OK MAN…..YEAH…..


Spring 2001, interior of Iridium, 63rd and Broadway, NYC. Pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian have just finished a long second set. It's another weeknight. It's one of the greatest sets of music I've ever seen.

The music is now over. What more could I want? I know! An awkward conversation with a great artist!

VS: (Still in college, high on the music, and still rather annoying): Hello, Mr. Motian?

Paul Motian: (By himself at the bar, as the club is clearing out. He's quieter, sipping out of a shot glass, satisfied, greeting VS like he knows him.) Hey man, what's happening?

VS: (aware that Paul has no idea who he is, but…but……he MUST tell Paul Motian, at all costs, that the music he had JUST PLAYED was very good. What if Paul doesn't know????? VS to the rescue! ) That was a great set. (Relieved that his mission has been successfully completed.)

Paul Motian: (Humoring him.) Alright man, ok. Yeah. (He looks around. He is a benevolent dictator.) You know, I like this club, this is a good club. (Thinking out loud, and this kid seems ok enough) I think I'd like to bring my bebop band in here.

VS: (Yes, I actually said this.) Oh, I don't know if you want to do that.  

Paul Motian: (Reasonably incredulous that a child is saying this to him): WHAT?

VS: (Surprised that he would have to explain such an obvious truth to such a brilliant man.): Well, this is a very expensive….place for me to come….and I think….well, it's not a great place, you know, expensive.

Paul Motian: (Currently impossible for him to care less about this conversation and/or VS's comment): Yeah? Well, I DON'T CARE about that. (He turns his back and continues sipping out of his Scotch glass).

VS: (Slinks and cowers away. A gradual awareness of his titanic silliness creeps over him.)


Summer 2001, Village Vanguard, NYC. The Paul Motian Trio- Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, Bill Frisell on guitar, and Paul Motian on drums- is playing here for six nights. Two sets Tuesday thru Thursday and Sunday, 3 sets on Friday and Saturday.

Clearly, Paul Motian had not heeded my excellent career advice about avoiding jazz clubs with cover charges over $0, and so I decided to spend my meager earnings on the $15 cover and $10 minimum the Vanguard charged at the time. This was my first time seeing Paul at the Vanguard, and I sat either right in front of the drums in the "general seating" area, or at the bar.

I was working at a grocery store during the day, and I believe I went to 6 sets that week (3 trips to the Vanguard, and I stayed for two sets each time.) I, like everyone else that heard that trio in that room, was in heaven. I remember they opened every 1st set with "Jack Of Clubs", I remember "Body And Soul" every night, and I remember "The Sunflower" every night.

A most great and well-known jazz drummer (W.K.J.D. from here on out) has been giving VS drum lessons for a while. Knowing of and sharing VS's admiration of Paul Motian, W.K.J.D. offers to provide VS with a proper introduction to Paul. Fantasies of blissful conversation flower in VS's underdeveloped imagination. The time has come! Here's W.K.J.D. in attendance at tonight's show at the Vanguard!

W.K.J.D.: Hey Paul!

Paul Motian: Hey [name omitted] WHAT'S HAPPENING MAN ALRIGHT!

W.K.J.D.: Yeah Paul, I can hear you've been practicing.


W.K.J.D.: (smiling and joking) Yeah, you been taking lessons?

Paul Motian: YEAH MAN since I WAS 12 years OLD HA HA HA HA HA


VS: (aside) I don't believe I can contribute to this conversation.

W.K.J.D.: Paul, I want you to meet Vinnie, a student of mine.

VS: Hi Paul. We've met before.

Paul Motian: Oh yeah? I don't remember! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA

W.K.J.D.: Yeah, he's a big fan of yours.

Paul Motian: Really? Why? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA


VS: (awkward)

W.K.J.D.: Hang on, I'll be right back. (In the distance) Hey! Alright.

VS: (awkward)

Paul Motian: (silence)

VS: Have you known W.K.J.D. a long time?

Paul Motian: Yeah, man. You know his father was a [and here Paul told me a very interesting and non-scandalous fact about W.K.J.D.'s father that I'd never heard before and haven't heard since. A quick Wikipedia search resulted in total corroboration of what Paul told me. ]

VS: (Interested and surprised) Oh yeah? (Can we…TALK about this??)

Paul Motian: Yep. (Orders a drink and turns his head in such a way as to immediately informs VS that the conversation is over.)


January 2002. For a college project, VS is presenting transcriptions of Paul Motian's drumming and compositions, a biographical sketch, and recorded examples of his music. Having heard that his phone number was in the NYC phone book, and seeing friends develop mentor/student relationships with musicians they had no prior connection to, VS decides to give Paul Motian a phone call. He cannot see how this could possibly be anything but a good experience for both of them.)

VS: Here he is, Stephen Motian, okay, 212 [beep beep beep] (ring..ring….ring….ring…) [automated voice says I can leave a message] Um, hi Mr. Motian, my name is Vinnie, and we've met, um, we've met a few times, and I've transcribed some of your compositions, and I'm wondering if I can send them to you, and if you would tell me if I've gotten them right or not, um, that would be great. My phone number is [whatever the hell it was]. Ok, thank you. (Hangs up phone, walks away from the phone).

30 seconds later


VS: Hello?


VS: Who's this?

Paul Motian: This is Paul Motian WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT????

VS: (!!!!!) Oh, well, I just transcribed some tunes of yours…..and…..was wondering if I could show them to you to see if they're correct….


VS: Well, it's for a college project, and it would be really great if I could show them to you. (Pouting) Just to see if they're right! If I've got the tunes right!

Paul Motian: NO! I don't wanna see them.

VS: But just to see if they're right.

Paul Motian: Listen, they're simple tunes, they're right, and I don't wanna see them.

VS: (something)

Paul Motian: (hangs up the phone in a decisive manner)

VS: (back to the drawing board)


Summer 2009. I've seen Paul Motian play many times since I wisely stopped trying to talk to him. He had a health scare, stopped traveling- he'll barely go to Brooklyn for a recording session- and plays more frequently in NYC than I ever thought he would. It seems he's at the Vanguard once every six weeks now.

Several of my friends and colleagues begin playing with him- Jacob Sacks, Thomas Morgan, Michael Attias, Bill McHenry, and Loren Stillman. His playing, which had been growing more and more minimal when I first heard him, seems to have reversed course and become more dense, more active, with a wider dynamic range and a more 'drumistic' vocabulary. I see him play double strokes, conventional time-keeping patterns with brushes, backbeats, shuffles, idiomatic fills- things I'd heard him play on old recordings, but never thought I'd see him play live. His gigs, and the groups he presents, are a balance of tried and true and experimental. And he is, maybe for the first time, a happy fixture on the NYC jazz scene, making many recordings with younger musicians, and occasionally even appearing as a listener at other people's gigs. From my distant perspective, he seems a proud elder statesman. Of course, there are stories of his moods, and I see a set at the Vanguard where he's definitely NOT happy (and yelling at the band), but overall, a sunnier figure than the one I first saw and heard ten years ago.

This week he's at the Vanguard with Ben Street, Thomas Morgan, Masabumi Kikuchi, Bill McHenry and Loren Stillman.  Early evening, I meet my good friend, a most wonderful jazz musician who's worked with Paul, to go to hear Paul at the Vanguard. This FOVS (Friend Of VS's) knowing of my great-and-still-growing respect and admiration for Paul's playing, suggests that we meet at a restaurant/coffee shop around the corner from the Vanguard, where, he says, Paul likes to go before the gig.

VS and FOVS: talk talk joke joke talk talk joke joke (with an eye toward the door)

In walks Paul Motian. He is a very small man.

FOVS: Hi Paul

Paul Motian: Uh oh, you're following me!

FOVS: (smiling, genuine) No, we aren't following you, just getting some food.

Paul Motian: Alright man, alright.

(He goes to the counter, and orders. We continue our conversation as he waits for his food. When it comes, he takes it to a table, and sits down, alone, right behind us)

FOVS: (casual, genuine) Paul, you're more than welcome to join us if you'd like.

Paul Motian: Ok man, sure.

FOVS: Paul, this is my friend VS, a drummer.

VS: Hi Paul, really great to meet you.

Paul Motian: Alright, man, yeah. (Quietly, and gladly) So, what you guys up to tonight?

FOVS(delighted, humorous, respectful- a master at engaging with Paul Motian): We're coming to see you, man!

Paul Motian: Uh-oh! Hahahaha, alright. Cool man.

FOVS (knowing just what to say): How're the crowds so far?

Paul Motian: Pretty good, man, they're pretty good. We have two basses this week. It's really great having two bass players, really great. Hey, [fantastic musician] took me to this vegan restaurant on 13th Street. I went there with Poo the other night man. You know this place? I think it's called [name omitted]?

FOVS: Sure, we go there a lot with [fantastic musician]. Vinnie plays with [fantastic musician] too, Paul.

VS: (going for it!): Yeah, a student of mine that works there [the vegan restaurant] told me he waited on you guys last night.

Paul Motian: Oh yeah? That guy was your student? Alright man. (Pleased. Settling in. To VS) I gotta play at Cornelia Street Cafe next week, you ever play there?

VS: Yeah, I've played there a lot actually.

Paul Motian: They have some Canopus drums there, right?

VS: Yeah, uh-huh, Canopus.

Paul Motian: How are they? They any good?

VS: They're great. Fine. Totally cool.

Paul Motian: How're the heads on the bass drum? They don't have those pinstripe heads on there, do they?

VS: No, no. Just some ambassadors. The drum rings a bit.

Paul Motian: Right, ok. I played there before, that's what I remember. (Easing back, feeling comfortable, enjoying talking shop) You know, I used to have this Gretsch kit.

VS's Mind: I know. Before that you had a Slingerland, and you apparently had a Sonor kit that you may have used only in Europe, but you seem to have had an endorsement deal with Sonor, at least for a brief period in the 80s, based on the magazine ads and the Sonor drums shout-out on the It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago LP from 1984 on ECM Records. The Gretsch kit was in a Modern Drummer article that appeared in 1994, just as you were debuting the Electric Bebop Band. I actually still have the magazine and I remember the day I got it in the mail.

VS: Oh yeah?

Paul Motian: Yeah, I recently got rid of it, and got a new set of Canopus.

VS's Mind: Yes, this apparently happened some time in the last 6 weeks, and I regret that I didn't attend the Vanguard the week you first used them. I believe you bought them at Maxwell's, isn't that correct? Everyone tells me you have an 18" bass drum, which I've never seen you use. I'm most curious as to how they sound.

VS: How are they?

Paul Motian: (Glad you asked!) Well, I have an 18" bass drum now. I'm starting to tune them up, they sound pretty good. I have to play at Birdland in a couple weeks. (Seeming to enjoy himself, and the company.) What do you think of those drums?

VS: Well, you know, to be honest, I don't dig them. I don't like the way they sound.

Paul Motian: Well I dig 'em, cause at least then I don't have to bring my fucking drums, ha ha ha ha ha ha! I hate bringing my drums, and packing 'em up, ha ha ha ha ha ha. But I know what you mean man, I know what you mean. You guys going out of town this summer for some gigs?

VS: No, not this summer.

FOV: One gig in Italy next month.

Paul Motian: Oh man, one time I was in Italy, at this big hotel, and I was in the lobby, and there's Milt Jackson at the desk! ha ha ha ha So I go up to him and I say "Hey Milt, hey man!" He turns around and looks at me and says "Oh hi Paul. Still playing the drums?" (Paul slumps over in his chair to demonstrate how he felt). Man, I felt like two inches tall. So I said "Yeah, Bags." Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

FOVS/VS: (Surprised by his candor, happy that he seems happy.) Hahahahaha!

FOVS: (Changing the subject) Hey Paul, did you ever play with Billie Holiday?

Paul Motian: (guarded, but willing to talk) Yeah man, one time, out on Long Island.

FOVS/VS: (expression of joy and admiration).

We eventually realize it's time to go.

Paul Motian: Hey man, so you teach drums, huh?  

VS: Yeah. I teach all the regular stuff. Reading and rudiments. We do the Wilcoxon book.

Paul Motian: I used to practice out of that book all the time.

VS: Really?  

Paul Motian: Yeah man, since I was a kid. You know, one time in Chicago, Philly Joe and Max Roach were in a hotel room practicing out of that book, and Old Man Wilcoxon was there, and he heard them playing his book, and (he holds his hands up to his eyes) he was so moved that tears come to his eyes.

VS's Mind: This is the greatest story I've ever heard. This is too much to handle, because it's literally everything I love in one place. Paul Motian talking about Max Roach and Philly Joe playing for Charley Wilcoxon, overcome by emotion, because of snare drum, rudiments, and traditional grip. The only way this could be improved would be if we were all reading The New Yorker right now.

VS: Wow!

Arriving at the Vanguard, I make a motion to get in line, but both FOVS and Paul gesture for me to follow them downstairs. Paul then tells the person working the door that we're friends of his. So I enter the Vanguard, without paying the cover, and for a moment I am a friend of Paul's.



Some favorite Tony Williams performances of mine

Tony Williams' playing in the 1960's, with Miles Davis and many others, is some of the best loved drumming in jazz. Williams left Miles' group in early 1969, and continued performing and recording until his death in February 1997. Many listeners are less aware of Williams' music after leaving Miles Davis, even though it amounts to the bulk of his career (6 years with Davis, 28 years away from Davis). 

Here's a picture of him in the 1960s (circa. 1964, to be inexact). Note the small drumset, not-shiny, presumably Turkish-made cymbals, smallish drumsticks, and exquisite evening wear: 


Even a cursory glance at his work in the 1960s would reveal music and drumming that can be very different from recording to recording. (This is, of course, true of all great jazz artists, and is, of course, central to jazz's identity!) Picking almost at random, on Miles Davis' Live At The Plugged Nickel  (recorded in 1965released in various formats starting in 1982 on Sony/Columbia), he's focussing on the ride cymbal; on Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch (rec. 1964, Blue Note), he uses all the components of the drumset equally, and at times ventures quite far from idiomatic jazz vocabulary; on Miles Davis' Filles De Kilimanjaro (rec. 1968, Columbia) he's referencing rock and R&B rhythms; and so on. 

His playing with Miles, and in the 60's generally, suggests so many possibilities- it's colorful and unfinished, in many different "places" (one second, he's playing very conventional jazz time, the next second playing texturally, without a timekeeping pattern), suggesting jazz's avant-garde (of the 60s) while sounding rooted and grooving. No wonder it's so well-loved. 

Few artists can maintain the state of constant change Williams was in, and the number of artists that would choose to maintain such a state might be fewer still. Of course, the music business exerts its own pressures on artists, and seldom do those pressures make for better art.  By the mid-1970s, many of the external characteristics of his playing (equipment, vocabulary, musical contexts in which he placed himself) were quite different from what they had been in the 1960s, thus creating the impression that he is an artist with two distinct eras in his work. 

Here's a picture of him in the 1980s. Notice the larger sticks, bigger drums, greater quantity of drums and cymbals, shiny, American-made cymbals, and very good 80s fashion sense: 


Trumpeter Wallace Roney, who worked with Williams from 1985 until Williams' death in '97 once described him as an "avant-garde Buddy Rich". which is as perfect an encapsulation of his later years as one could hope for. As he aged, his vocabulary became more fixed, his approach was perfected, and his playing, sometimes, on record, could sound rote or ossified. Other times, he would sound so content, so in his zone, so masterful and in charge, that the effect was breathtaking. 

He spent 25 years (early '72 to his death in February '97) out of a career that was only 34 years long working in a style that was different from, but related to, his playing as a young man. I want to share a few of my favorite examples of his playing from this period. I've included Youtube links for the three albums that are on Youtube, in at least partial form. 

1.) Tony Williams: The Story Of Neptune (Blue Note, 1992). Featuring his working quintet of Wallace Roney on trumpet, Bill Pierce on tenor and soprano sax, Mulgrew Miller on piano, and Ira Coleman on bass, this was Tony's penultimate Blue Note release, and the final TW quintet album with new Williams compositions. The recorded sound is remarkable- many of the nuances of the quintet and Williams' playing are well-captured here. While "Creatures Of Conscience" is one of the most virtuosic performances Williams ever recorded, there is also a 10-minute version of "Poinciana", arranged by Williams, with trumpet, soprano, and piano solos, and the leader playing a very simple, repetitive pattern with brushes. And Miller's piano solo on Freddie Hubbard's "Byrdlike" (a 12-bar blues) is yet another reminder of his enormous gift, and the high point of the album for me. All told, it's one of my favorite Tony recordings.

2.) Tony Williams: Tokyo Live (Blue Note, 1993) A 2 CD live album, capturing Williams' quintet playing all Williams' compositions (save an arrangement of the Beatles' "Blackbird") at the Tokyo Blue Note club. I find this album most interesting for a couple reasons. First, Williams uses a variety of approaches to playing his compositions, and since the spotlight is squarely on him for most of the album, we can focus on him playing grooves and drum parts ("Geo Rose", "Sister Cheryl"); dramatic fills and "accompanying" figures (every tune); and moments of very idiomatic jazz drumming- a shuffle on "Ancient Eyes", beautiful mid-tempo 4/4 swing on "Angel Street"; double and then quadruple time on the 3/4 "Civilization". Second, of the four extended drum solos on the album, one of them- the intro to "Warriors"- while comprised of several routines that he used in drum solos throughout his career, feels uniquely improvised. It's a rare moment in Williams' career when he allows us to hear him finding new possibilities in material he'd been using for up to twenty years. Finally, there is Miller's nine-and-a-half minute unaccompanied intro to "Citadel", which I simply urge you to hear. Overall, Tokyo Live is a summary of all Williams' had learned as a jazz drummer, jazz composer, and jazz bandleader since his return to "straight-ahead" jazz in 1985. 

3.) Public Image Ltd- Album Cassette Compact Disc (Virgin/Elektra, 1986) Williams only plays on three songs on this iconic PiL album- "FFF", "Rise", and "Home". He plays none of his trademark vocabulary- there are no Swiss triplets, no flams, no bass drum/cymbal fills, or single-stroke rolls. Instead, he completely subsumes his vocabulary and becomes a part of each song and the sonic landscape of the album. Looking at his fusion work, and his unreleased "Barbarians" project, it's clear that he truly loved rock and pop music. Its remarkable to hear him so completely abandon himself to John Lydon and Bill Laswell's aesthetic, and remarkable at how successful he is in this idiom. His singular intensity and commitment are easily recognizable and unmistakeable on these three tracks. John Lydon and PiL were the beneficiaries of Williams' artistry- "Rise" was a Top Twenty hit in England. Possibly the only radio tune with Tony Williams on drums?

4.) Ron Carter- Etudes (Elektra/Musician, 1982)  Carter assembled a quartet for this album- Art Farmer on trumpet, Bill Evans on saxophone, himself of course on bass and Williams on drums. I'd heard of this record for years, had heard it was special, and was excited when a friend played it for me. At my first hearing, I was a little disappointed, as I thought it was merely an average TW performance. Over time, I realized what it was about this album that made it so special. While Williams plays with his customary intensity, there is something in this music and his playing that is difficult to pinpoint but no less present- a happy, casual, intimate, almost experimental energy. There is a lot of humor on this album- something I find missing on many of the Herbie Hancock/VSOP projects, for example. And the absence of piano or guitar means there is plenty of space to hear the unique chemistry Williams shared with Ron Carter. My favorite tracks are "Rufus"- check out the 22-bar blowing form- and "Echoes", a straight-ahead blues. Had I had the chance to sit by the drums at a Tony Williams Village Vanguard gig, I imagine it would have sounded approximately like this. 

5.) Arcana- The Last Wave (DIW, 1996) A unique trio of Williams, guitarist Derek Bailey, and bassist/producer Bill Laswell (the man responsible for Williams' appearance on Public Image Ltd's Album Cassette Compact Disc), this album is apparently a set of free improvisations by the trio. I don't know of any public performances they gave, or of any other prior meeting between Williams and Bailey. What I find compelling about Williams on this recording is his openness to Bailey. Williams' virtuosity and natural rocking or grooving propensity means that the music is almost always becoming an excellent and conventional jam, yet Williams (and, of course, Bailey and Laswell), allows for other, less immediately gratifying energy to prevail. Bailey is too singular a voice and force to let the proceedings end up in "jam band" territory, as enjoyable as I might find that. While the success or failure of an album of free improvisation is notoriously difficult to assess, I recommend this album to all Tony Williams enthusiasts, as it demonstrates a side of his artistry not usually displayed, especially in his later years.


On Traditional Grip

Intro/Painfully Obvious Comments: 

The traditional grip is a way of holding drumsticks. Here's a pic of Mr. Max Roach holding the sticks with a traditional grip: 

Notice that his right hand (holding the stick farthest off the drum) and his left hand (holding the stick closest to the drum) are holding the sticks differently.

I've often wondered when this grip began being called "traditional". Not too long ago, it was the only way drummers held their sticks, excepting timpanists and mallet percussionists. Every drummer (quite literally, every single one) I've met who is over age 55 learned this grip at their first drum lesson. 

So a drumstick grip wouldn't be called 'traditional' if it's being used by everyone. Words like 'traditional' get attached to activities (like cooking, for example) only after another way of doing that activity has come along. 

The other way of doing this particular activity- holding drumsticks with the intent of striking the drum in a controlled manner- is called the matched grip. Here's a pic of Mr. Max Roach holding the sticks with a matched grip. 

Though this isn't the highest quality photo, and we don't have a perfect view of his right hand, we can still see clearly that his left hand and right hand are holding the sticks in the same way. Hence the term 'matched'. 

Speak, Memory! 

When I was a kid, the traditional grip seemed exotic and beautiful. I associated it with serious, grown-up jazz drummers. I didn't hold the sticks that way when I played- I played a matched grip. I was also 10, and "playing" meant "playing along with Beatles records". But anyway. 

Thinking about 1990, 1991, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta were frequently pictured and written about in Modern Drummer magazine, and they played the traditional grip, and talked about it. Then there was the June 1992 Modern Drummer Tony Williams feature, with pictures of him from a 1989 Modern Drummer Festival appearance. He looked huge, intense, imposing, and like a capital-A Artist. I was a fan before I'd heard him play a note.  And he was playing that traditional grip, and making it look powerful. 

A few months later I took my first drum lesson with Mr. Rick Compton, with whom I studied until I finished high school. He insisted on the traditional grip in our lessons, and would accept nothing else. So I learned it. And I loved it. I suddenly felt an immediate, distant, yet real connection to a whole host of cool-looking drummers whose playing I loved. And I was different from most drummers I met. 

Rick, in a very systematic way, taught me the rudiments, and brought me through the classic snare drum and drumset texts. Excursions to jazz camps and other typical high-school music opportunities all resulted in powerful musical experiences, and I had them all while holding the sticks with a traditional grip. So when I began playing gigs, and ended up at music school, I was a "traditional grip player", with a few years of experience (or baggage) under my belt. 

As you might guess, once at music school, I was immediately dissatisfied with all I had done, and tried switching to a matched grip for a few years. I remember constantly going back and forth between matched and traditional in the course of one tune, very undecided. Eventually there was the move to NYC, and as I went about putting together a career and reputation as a musician, I realized that I was most truly myself when playing the traditional grip, and that I badly wanted to show it to anyone interested in learning it. 

Why I Play Traditional Grip

I play the traditional grip so that I feel a connection to the great drummers of the past; they inspired me as a young man and still inspire me today. After all, it was the grip used to develop the rudiments, the drumset, and jazz drumming. And I have the great honor of using the same grip my heros used, and making it my own, which they all did. Tony Williams, Jo Jones, Paul Motian, Max Roach, and all my heros remind me that there is no limit to what can be achieved with the traditional grip.

I use the traditional grip because it's the same grip I used as a young man, and I carry all my own history, for better or worse, with that grip.

I use the traditional grip because it's difficult, and forces me to examine the technique I'm using at all times. My right hand is different from my left hand, and the traditional grip accentuates this difference, which means I learn and improve as I try to make my hands equal. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the traditional grip is a marker. It announces the serious intention of the drummer to everyone. Traditional grip says "I'm VERY SERIOUS about drumming folks! So serious that I hold the sticks in a counter-intuitive way, because people used to!" When I was a teenager, that kind of marker/statement was exactly what I needed. It gave me something to practice, some very clear goals to be achieved, and set me apart from many other drummers my age, without isolating me. In fact, I've often guessed that the best reason I still play drums today is that I learned the traditional grip. 

I feel a great responsibility to pass on something that made such a difference in my life to anyone that's remotely interested. 



Musicians across the globe still study counterpoint, even though a computer could be easily programmed to churn out counterpoint homework. We have so many other, more pressing things to study, and there is no direct, practical application for the knowledge. No one is being commissioned to write four-part masses following the model of Palestrina and other masters. But still, we study it. Why? 

Because we feel cool studying it. It's arcane and pointless and beautiful. We feel as though we're getting access to ancient learning, it's hard to do, and if we have any success, it boosts our confidence. If it was good enough for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, we rationalize, it's probably good enough for us. We have the privilege to study what they studied! What fun! It will mess with our instincts from time to time- but the other option is never to study, and then, unless you are very lucky, you will, sooner or later, become bored out of your mind trying to make music with a fixed set of skills. So you're in trouble regardless, so we might as well study. For me, that's traditional grip. It looks cool, it's old, and it's exciting and enriching to learn. Mel used it. Tony used it. Paul Motian used it. Hell, Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Jim Gordon, and Levon Helm used it! And, like counterpoint, it's a fantastic teaching tool. It slows everything down in a good way, and forces discussions about technique, relaxation, and sound at drum lessons, even with beginners.


Advice to a young jazz musician moving to NYC

1. Say yes to everything. 

Session at a bass players house? Yes. Gig in Jersey City for $40, toll money, and dinner? Yes. Singer's demo recording session? Yes. High school musical in White Plains? Yes. Jam session at the Tea Lounge? Yes. Say yes for moral and financial reasons. Take it all, play your ass off, and be cool. 

2. Go hear everyone play, especially older jazz musicians. 

Pay the cover, buy the drink, sit in the front. Don't worry if the music is good, bad, or indifferent. You will learn something.  Any conclusion you draw is likely to change in a few months anyway. 

3. Assume every musician you meet, on any gig, in any scene, of any age, of any background, is very, very good. 

This is not an arts-friendly cheap-living European capitol  This is not a Midwest college town. This is New York. Most musicians moved here from somewhere far away to achieve their life's dream. If they have lived here longer than you, they know something you don't, and are very, very good at something. So be cool. 

4.) Give every musician you meet a reason to notice you. 

I do not know how many musicians move to New York ever year. I do know that very, very few of them stay. Therefore, if you tell an older musician, "I just moved to town", that older musician is quite reasonably seeing you as one of many. If you wish to stand out, play as well as you can, and be friendly, polite, and sincere. You might be surprised how many people notice. 

5.) Be generous in praising and supporting friends, colleagues, and peers. 

Your friend, who moved here with you, gets a great gig, while you are hoping to maybe sit in somewhere. Go to his or her gig, and cheer him or her on. At a jam session, you are outplayed by someone your age. Try to make some connection with that person. Again, this will be better morally and materially, and no, this is not easy. 

6.) Have extremely clear goals, and go right to work achieving them. 

A very clear goal might be very general: "Check out NYC jazz and/or the music scene in general!" Maybe you're more specific:  "I want this band, with these people, to play these tunes, at this place, for this amount of people, x number of times per year/month/week". Excellent. Get cracking. Not sure of your goal? No problem. Just acknowledge that you're unsure. You'll figure it out.