Tony Williams’ sudden, unexpected death at the youthful age of 51 in 1997 left a huge void in the music scene. Williams grabbed the attention of the jazz world through his recordings with musicians such as Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Sam Rivers and a debut recording that would be the first album of avant garde jazz on Blue Note. However it was the 17-year-old prodigy's tenure with Miles Davis that caused a monumental shift in the way musicians and listeners alike thought about time.
Williams redefined the way jazz drummers played, particularly through his usage of the ride cymbal--its dark smoky hues producing ever changing syncopations--and his approach to the drum set in a more orchestral, as opposed to just rhythmic, way.
Moreover, Williams remained innovative throughout his career. After leaving Davis in 1968, he formed the groundbreaking jazz-rock group Lifetime and by the mid-70s was increasingly diving into composition. After several years of inactivity, Williams returned to
the label where it all began for him--Blue Note--and recorded Foreign Intrigue, his first acoustic album since Spring (Blue Note, 1965). Williams formed his own quintet and over the course of 6 years recorded 5 outstanding albums, with the bulk of them included in Mosaic’s 24th release in their Select series, focusing on the quintet’s studio recordings.
The music contained on this 3-disc set is essential listening not just for Tony Williams devotees but for fans of advanced post-bop. It represents a tight working band which, in addition to the peerless percussionist, features trumpeter Wallace Roney, the underrated
Bill Pierce on tenor and soprano saxophones, Mulgrew Miller on piano, and bassists Charnett Moffett, Bob Hurst or Ira Coleman--all equally dedicated toward bringing their “A” game to an expansive and varied breadth of memorable pieces.
There is a longstanding myth that drummers are unable to be good bandleaders. In an illuminating 1985 interview with Ben Sidran, Williams addresses the subject with a witty response: “Yeah, you know, the drummer is just kind of a wild and crazy guy, and a savage. And he just beats on the drums and that’s all he can do. You know, give him a piece of raw meat.”
Williams unmistakable sarcasm no doubt reflects some disenchantment with the public's fascination with categorizing and thereby limiting the creative artist's field of vision. While he gained recognition with “Pee Wee," which was recorded by Miles Davis on Sorcerer (Columbia, 1967), a dedicated focus on songwriting is very present on the program of new music found on Foreign Intrigue (Blue Note, 1985). For this session, which comprises most of disc 1, Williams hired his old colleagues, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and Miles Davis bandmate Ron Carter on bass. Next, through the assistance of producer Michael Cuscuna and label president Bruce Lundvall, the group was expanded to a sextet with the addition of trumpeter Wallace Roney, altoist Donald Harrison, and pianist Mulgrew Miller. Williams’ melodic stamp is evident right from the first bars of the title track, with its African-inspired triple meter.
The groove of the piece is enhanced by the intelligent, subtle use of the Simmons drum synth--a prevalent electric trend in pop music that Williams was curious to explore in an acoustic setting. Hutcherson, Miller, Harrison and especially Roney contribute strong, stinging solos. In fact, detractors who have accused Roney of being a mere imitator of his idol, Miles Davis, will be enlightened by the discovery that this early in his career, his fluid lines are delivered with a bold, brassy tone at times recalling the drive of Woody Shaw.
As for the leader, Williams is at once introspective and slowly burning with the “Poinciana” groove of “Sister Cheryl," also cut by Wynton Marsalis, and full of fire on the album closer, “Arboretum." The results of this session so pleased the drummer that he quickly formed a quintet with Roney and Miller still on board but augmented by Bill Pierce and the gifted young bassist, Charnett Moffett. The evolution of the group is traced
through the rest of this set, which gradually but emphatically reveals the exceptional compositional acumen of Tony Williams.
From November 1986 to December 1991, the newly formed quintet would record 31 selections, which demonstrate greater ensemble empathy with each new session. Civilization from 1986 showcases how mainstream jazz could be fresh and relevant with tunes such as the title track, “Ancient Eyes,” with its melody serving as a riveting interlude between the solos. Another gem is the Coltrane-like “Soweto Nights,”
with a striking testimony by Bill Pierce on soprano sax. What leaps out at the listener quite clearly is how strong a tandem Roney and Pierce are, even through their unison lines on the heads. While the Miles Davis-Wayne Shorter model is evident, both men bring their own experiences to the fore, making the sound their own.
Unlike Shorter’s elliptical melodic constructions, Williams' compositions show a unique accessibility while still maintaining challenging harmonic and rhythmic structures. The contours of the tunes are especialy affecting in performance: Roney and Pierce create
a distinct sound, especially with their trumpet and soprano sax leads on many of the tunes.
As the group recorded their second album Angel Street in 1988, Williams' fascinating compositions melded with the empathetic contributions of each band member. In particular, Mulgrew Miller steals the show on the opening title track with his inventive Tyner and Hancock-spiced phrasing, while Bill Pierce before him on soprano stays coolly in the pocket behind Williams’ gargantuan swing.
It should be noted that when these sides originally came out, critics recognized the excellence of the music, yet criticized Tony Williams’ loud drumming. But now when one listens to Angel Street, and the beautiful reprise of “Pee Wee” with Roney’s evocative solo, Williams sounds remarkably responsive and sensitive in his support of soloists. Diversity is in evidence, from "Angel Street" to the rock-influenced “Red Mask," which features a heavy groove on the bridge complete with trashy hi-hat playing to the marvelous funk of “Dreamland,” where Miller’s Hancockian comping and Bill Pierce’s meaty
tenor reach inspired highs. But another voice in the musical mix is Williams’ melodic thinking at the drums, as showcased on a trio of sensually-titled vehicles: “Touch Me," “Kiss Me," and “Thrill Me."
The quintet’s last two studio efforts, "Native Heart" and "The Story of Neptune" (recorded in 1989 and 1991 respectively), switch the music's focus to deeper waters compositionally, using the quintet almost orchestrally. The gentle lilt of “Native Heart” is introduced by a silky Pierce melody leading to the main head statement, with all-around fine statements from the three lead soloists--Roney, Pierce and Miller. “Juicy Fruit” surprises with a relay-type structure for the solo choruses and with the first eight bars of the theme sounding much like Sorcerer or Nefertiti-era Davis before breaking out into a shuffle that would make Art Blakey smile.
“Crystal Palace” is a great blowing tune, though the horns phrase the melody with a deeper sense of space and texture than is the case on earlier compostions. The drum solo on “Liberty” takes Williams’ melodic thinking on the drums to an even deeper level. The fusillade of toms, are accented by snare triplets, which sonically spell out the tune's title, as variations are constantly being explored. After one final outburst, and several bars of silence a soft press roll brings the energetic piece to an unexpected conclusion. Dual horn fanfare starts out The Story of Neptune with its newscast-like “Overture” played with a Latin twist.
Miller comes out of the gate on fire while Williams adds stimulating support. Wallace Roney’s Harmon-muted tone graces the mysterious second movement, again with nods to the aforementioned Davis period, while the fast third section, “Creatures of Conscience,” takes the piece out. Williams’ other piece “Crime Scene” tricks the listener, pretending to be completely funky before it turns to swing, Roney takes solo honors for this track and possibly tampers with forensic evidence by laying down brutal, white-hot doubletime runs. The rest of the program contains well executed covers of “Blackbird,” “Poinciana” (with the famous rhythm being implied only by the high hat, Williams using brushes) and Freddie Hubbard’s “Birdlike."
Kudos must be given to Michael Cuscuna and the folks at Mosaic for reissuing these recordings of the Tony Williams quintet. Upon the reactivation of Blue Note in 1985, the label issued some important music by James Newton, pianist Don Pullen, and the Tony Williams sides. Along with Pullen, this is the second Mosaic Select reissuing material from that period of the label’s history, much of which regrettably remains out of print, including the incendiary live album capturing the quintet at it’s peak, Tokyo Live (Blue Note, 1992).
All quibbles aside, as a complete package this set delivers some great music that warrants repeated listening, with each composition by Tony Williams being not merely memorable but among the best work recorded by the influential percussion prodigy. This was a wonderful group that at the height of the so-called “neo-bop” era delivered music that was full of genuine, creative soul and worthy of far more attention than it was given. Warning: this is a limited edition, so hesitation could be costly.
Jared C. Balogh
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