Tony Williams

Michael E. Ross reviews "Wilderness", the best of Tony Williams.

Published April 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Miles Davis was, besides being a musician of uncommon talent, a man given to frank -- if not always accurate -- speaking, and no small amount of bombast. Indeed, if the hue and cry over his 1990 autobiography was any indication, Miles never let the facts of his own life get in the way of a good story.

But at least one statement attributed to him has the ring of truth. Commenting about Tony Williams, a longtime member of his groups, Davis said that "a drummer like Tony comes along only once in 30 years."

When Williams died Feb. 23 at the age of 51 of a heart attack in Daly City, Calif., he left a legacy of performance that marks Davis' comment as unassailably correct. With a musical talent both thunderously powerful and sweetly subtle, Williams made himself the archetypal jazz drummer. His range spanned the period between hard bop's hegemony and the emergence of fusion, an amalgam of jazz and rock.

Tony Williams explored the joys and possibilities of experimentation, not locking his talent in stylistic amber. Performing with many of the best and brightest of musicians -- from Jimi Hendrix to Bruce Springsteen, from alumni of Cream and the Soft Machine to the Kronos Quartet -- Tony Williams never met a rhythm he didn't like.

Born in Chicago on Dec. 12, 1945, Williams was raised in Boston and got his musical start early when his father, a postal worker who played the saxophone in his spare time, bought the boy a Slingerland drum kit. At 12, Williams was taking lessons at the Berklee School of Music. At the venerable age of 16, he got his big break playing at Connelly's, a jazz haunt in Boston, where he met saxophonist Jackie McLean. McLean was impressed enough to bring Williams to New York City in December 1962.

A year later, Williams began one of the most productive periods of his musical life when he joined the 1963 edition of Miles Davis' band, which eventually included saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter. That group would, in many ways, bridge the old world of jazz and the new, moving jazz from relatively straight bebop to the experimental firestorm of fusion.

Williams' work with Davis and his fellow travelers ended in late 1968. But Williams soon took off in a new direction -- with a band of his own, the Tony Williams Lifetime, formed with guitarist John McLaughlin, organist Larry Young and bassist Jack Bruce (formerly of Cream). For six years or so with that band, and again in 1977, with a new ensemble, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Williams pushed the envelope of what modern music could be.

He came to embrace more traditional compositional forms. In the '80s, he refined his compositional skills with Dr. Robert Greenberg and Robert Stine of the University of California at Berkeley. He conducted a master class at the Mozart Conservatory in Salzburg, Austria. And in 1990, in as dramatic a departure from jazz as you could ask for, Williams wrote "Rituals," a piece for string quartet, piano, drums and cymbals performed with the Kronos Quartet at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco.

His versatility is perhaps best illustrated in the lineup he selected for "Wilderness," the album he released last year on the Ark 21 label -- the record that would be his last.

"Wilderness" is a blend of jazz and classical styles,
with Williams working with guitarist Pat Metheny,
saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Stanley
Clarke and Williams' old comrade in arms, Herbie
Hancock -- along with a 30-piece orchestra. In its
scale and in the variety of its players,
"Wilderness" points to what Tony Williams always
was: a restless creative spirit who recognized no

By Michael E. Ross

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