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 1965, released 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.