Miles Davis wasn’t embellishing when he spoke so candidly about Tony Williams, “He’s just a motherf***er…there was nobody like him before or since.”
Turn on any 60’s era Miles Davis album with the legendary quartet of Carter, Hancock and Williams and it is no surprise that Tony William’s playing is the centerpiece. His explosive hits punctuated with a delicate softness and dynamic tied his style together into something where it seemed nothing was impossible. It was never bound to exclusively soft or loud. He had a freedom to play anything he wanted however he wanted. For instance, turning on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and the jazz-fusion supergroup Trio of Doom and it seems almost hard to imagine he’s playing on both records.
But his talent wasn’t without a cost. Tony wasn’t walking out of the womb ripping polymetric grooves. Or maybe he was, I mean I wasn’t there. But I like to imagine a newborn kid coming into this world doing that. That’s enough to make any mom proud.
At any rate though, practice was the permanent fixture to his career. Like Alan Watts always said about the performer (and I’m paraphrasing), but only when the performance is rehearsed to perfection and the display becomes more natural and woven into the fabric of movement and speech that the viewer can be fooled into thinking there was no rehearsal at all. As if those movements had always been apart of that performer. But it was just the opposite with Tony. He was quoted in Notes and Tones as saying, “I used to practice eight hours a day, every day! From about 1956 until about 1962. It was a whole ting, a whole period in my life where nothing else was happening.”
Tony’s emergence into the musical world was incendiary. He was 17 and just leaving high school. The year was 1962. A friend of Mile’s mentioned Tony Williams, a native to Boston, as being a replacement for the subsequent loss of both Jimmy Cobb and Frank Butler. He was a young kid but regarded as having tremendous talent. Eventually Tony and Miles came together, birthing their first album with the full list of members being Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. That accomplishment was one among many others that year and years to come. Also in 1962 he put out Vertigo with Jackie McLean, Evolution with Grachan Moncur, My Point of View with Herbie Hancock and Una Mas with Kenny Dorham.
Tony played on top of the beat, just a fraction above and it gave everything a little edge.
Tony’s relationship to the pulse and just how he positioned himself to the beat is what makes him so unique. It’s what made his style and voice so memorable from the beginning. Even on Seven Steps to Heaven, his first album put together with little rehearsal, showed that. Miles said, “Tony played on top of the beat, just a fraction above and it gave everything a little edge.” But it was this same edge that made Tony confront Miles about his edge seeming in contrast dull. Tony eventually called out Miles one day, asking him why he didn’t practice. Miles was supposedly missing a lot of notes during their sets. He lamented that he was “having a hard time keeping up with his young ass.” And who could blame him?
During the 60s Tony’s style and voice was shaping and growing more complex. His comping arrangements were becoming more elaborate as his playing became more polymetric and hemiolyzed(sp? not even the internet can help me here). His playing was unparalled and differed from the traditional straight ahead and sometimes boxiness of other players thinking in smaller phrasing of 4 or 8 with more common divisibility. Tony saw larger groupings and cut and shaped and assembled beats into more interesting mosaic patterns. For instance, a group of 12 beats filtered through Tony probably defied the typical 3 bars of 4 or 4 bars of 3. Instead his playing might reveal something like a grouping of 5 and 7. Over longer phrases, this reworking of new polymetric norms created a unique flow that glided over bar lines and made songs feel free of time. Totally unfettered. Some listeners during the era of Mile’s holy quartet even mistook their songs for the free jazz variety. Free jazz was in vogue throughout the 60s with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Peter Brotzman, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane pushing that genre to new limits. Those misunderstandings towards the quartet illuminated a creative truth behind their music and its capabilities: that through the rigorous application, exploration and re-imaging of song form, the group could create a sound that effectively felt outside of time altogether though paradoxically being so very much about the form.
In my mind that’s kind of the great irony behind Tony’s sound and the sound of so many other great artists. His playing felt so free like the cadence and formless bounce of a conversation but it was only through practice and repetitive gestures that unlocked this beautiful sense of freedom. Practicing sounds like anything but that.
So if you’ve lasted through that wave of historical details about Tony and his crew and didn’t click away or fall asleep through what I consider his philosophy of sound and even managed to suffer beyond this slightly self-effacing section about whether or not you read this far, well, I’ve got the video the title of this blog entry promised.
Seven Steps to Heaven has always been one of my favorite tracks from Mile Davis’s early years. And It’s been a few good months to learn and feel comfortable in this uptempo swing. So yeah, check this thing out already.