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Tony Williams

“Lifetime”

When you read through the pages of Modern Drummer, check out the lists that drummers give when asked to cite which albums they listened to most for inspiration. A large percentage of the time the Tony Williams Lifetime album Believe It is on these lists. Let’s talk a little bit about Tony and this awesome album.

No doubt I do not have to profess the singular importance of Tony Williams to the readers of this site. Tony came into Miles Davis’ band as a teenager and lit the drumming world, indeed the jazz world, and beyond that, the music world, on fire.

What he did with the drum set irrevocably changed how we view our instrument. After reinventing the language of the drums once, he proceeded to do it again when he formed arguably the first fusion band Lifetime with organist Larry Young and the soon to be legendary guitarist John McLaughlin.

This material was extremely raw; you can sense the musicians were searching for something new, not quite sure of what it was, but their explorations had a profound effect on music, be it rock, jazz, or r&b, from that point on.

In Tony’s playing, he took a lot of the concepts he was hinting at with the Davis quintet: use of rhythms in-between straight and swung eighths, or indeed straight eighth rhythms, more powerful “rock like” fills, polyrhythms incorporating the full range of the kit, and took them to the next level.

So much so that he reinvented himself, at times sounding like a completely different drummer than the one from the 60’s, and again giving us a new rhythmic vocabulary and new music.

In 1975 a new version of Lifetime emerged. This band featured Tony, Tony Newton on bass, Alan Pasqua on keyboards, and a young, but still virtuosic, Allan Holdsworth (For the guitar-minded out there, I’ve run into quite a few guitarists who somewhat disdain Holdsworth because of his unorthodox style and absence of picking or any number of other semantic reasons that I fail to understand. What he managed to achieve with his particular legato style is to emulate what John Coltrane was doing on sax, i.e. “sheets of sound”, on the guitar while creating his own voice for his instrument. His influence is underrated.

In any event, Believe It features some exciting and unabashed playing from him.) What this group did was to coalesce all of the elements that the earlier Lifetime was experimenting with into a sonic explosion of rock, funk, and jazz. This is one of the very best fusion albums, before the genre became mired in a sea of semantics over what the word meant and a plethora of bad music.

Tony’s playing on this classic is nothing short of astounding and innovative. On the opening cut, “Snake Oil”, Tony lays down a kind of psuedo-pre-disco groove, playing “ands” on half open hi-hats and toms on the 2 and 4. In the outro of the tune, Tony explodes, but this is not just a chops display. Notice how he basically keeps the groove through out the tune, adding licks here and there, and finally he brilliantly sets up Holdsworth’s outro guitar solo. Yes, it is busy, but there is not one wasted note.

Everything Tony is playing is contributing to the groove and to the forward propulsion of the music. “Fred”, a Holdsworth original, has an almost magical sounding melody and harmonic structure along with a groove that has become one of the great fusion grooves and played by the likes of JoJo Mayer (Screaming Headless Torsos), Peter Erskine, and Dave Weckl, but no one does it like Tony.

It consists of the jazz ride being played on the hi-hat or ride cymbal and a half-time rock/funk groove played underneath (bass drum/snare). The feeling is one of a bounce, but not necessarily swinging. Played at a fairly brisk tempo, this groove burns! Tony’s playing on this track is incredibly imaginative and truly inspiring. “Proto-Cosmos” features some classic Tony drum breaks in the intro and at the interludes between the guitar and keyboard solos.

On this track (well, through out the album for that matter), one can hear many of Tony’s later or fusion era stylistic tendencies: use of flam accents, tom/bass combinations, unison figures between the bass and snare or between the hi-hat/ride and snare with the snare “ghosting” in the holes, and my favorite, the fill in which he plays straight eighths with flams and crescendos them.

The last track of the album, “Mr. Spock” (and believe me, this is “fascinating”), once again features Tony playing the same groove as “Fred” and also features a blistering drum solo which he plays over a repetitive riff that Holdsworth plays following his solo. This is a text book study of Tony. Swiss triplets displaced around the toms, rapid fire yet smooth as ice single strokes, intricate accent patterns – it’s all here. Tony carries this tune out playing a Bonhamesque rock groove, showing that while redefining the language of jazz drums, Tony could lay down a serious, and authentic, rock beat and also, by the way, heavily influence that genre.

There were many important contributions to jazz, jazz/rock, fusion, whatever you wish to call it, in the late 60s and moving into the 70s. Miles, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, all made important contributions in creating and shaping the genre. Fusion was already very much alive when Believe It came out, but Tony Williams, who had already staked his place in the history of music and drums and made his mark in forging this particualr music, did it again with this album. This is pure, unadulterated music, made by musicians who are reveling in their chops, but also in the sheer joy of creating.

Note: Believe It has been reissued on CD along with the album Million Dollar Legs. The two can now be found on the Tony Williams Lifetime The Collection. Million Dollar Legs contains some decent tunes, but there was a definite lack of strong material. Stick to the first six amazing tracks of The Collection.