BY BRAD SCHLUETER
Few drummers have altered the course of drumming forever—Tony Williams was one of them. Joining Miles Davis at age 17, Williams proved to be more than a mere prodigy, amazing listeners worldwide with his fluid interdependence and ease in expressing abstract ideas. And his powers only grew more daunting over time.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a jazz drummer today who wouldn’t cite Williams as a major influence. His highly improvisational and often complex playing seems risky, like someone dancing blindfolded at the edge of a cliff. But Williams always knew what he was doing—that sense of potential danger was one of the things that kept his playing vital.
He was very powerful and could be surprisingly loud, unafraid to dominate an ensemble with his brilliance. What’s more, Williams didn’t limit himself to just being a jazz drummer. He helped create fusion drumming and, unlike many jazz drummers, felt comfortable playing rock. He was able to be a chameleon because he understood and adapted his skills to the requirements of new idioms. Tony Williams was a genius and his premature death at 51 was a tragic loss to music lovers and drummers everywhere.
“Hittin’ On 6”
Joy Of Flying
Tony Williams Lifetime
This tune by Tom Scott is in 6/4 and has a bouncing swing feel that inspired Williams to play some cool grooves. For the first pattern, the snare falls on 2 and 5 with the kick drum usually hitting 1 and the & of 2, though Williams embellishes the figure freely. After the first break, he moves the snare to1 and drops a bass drum on the e of that beat. The drum fill in the first break uses a Swiss triplet sticking but is played as eighth-notes and flows over the bar line.
My Funny Valentine
This excerpt from “All Blues” shows Williams’ incredible approach to playing time while still a teenager in Miles Davis’ second great quintet. Williams revolutionized bebop drumming, and the genius of his comping simply can’t be captured on paper. He plays broken patterns, weaving around the other players, his sticks dancing across his drums and cymbals. The deftness of his touch, the nuance of his time, and the way he expressed his impulses in those moments are close to magical.
Tony Williams Hard Bop Quintet
The fast and furious intro of this Williams composition is sure to make you smile. He plays linear triplets with both hands, moving up and down his kit using a repeated RFR LFL sticking. The funky groove is a cool syncopated pattern with a light swing feel. Williams accents 2 and the last sextuplet partial before 4 on his snare, yet keeps the &s of the hi-hat pattern light and his bass drum notes strong.
“All Of You”
My Funny Valentine
Here’s another glimpse at Williams’ interesting style of comping. His feel on this is a bit tighter than a triplet but still swings fiercely. In the second line, he plays a tasty triplet linear fill that has a repeating pattern of R L R L R LF. His right hand moves from his ride to his hi-hat cymbal while his hi-hat closes shortly before the next cycle. He briefly shifts the time feel creating a quarter-note triplet metric modulation at the end of the third line, which he does several times during this recording.
The New Tony Williams Lifetime
This up-tempo fusion tune has a very fast hi-hat pattern playing 1 & ah 2 & ah 3 & ah 4 & ah groove that’ll challenge almost any drummer’s speed and endurance. The last two bars of line two show the basic groove, though characteristically, he improvises a lot around it. There are a bunch of cool breaks throughout the tune, but some of the coolest ones occur during the song’s outro. Leading into it, Williams plays a repeating sticking of R L L to set up the cymbal hits on every third sixteenth-note and then abruptly shifts to a bar of samba before morphing that pattern into a Swiss triplet fill using a sticking of lR R L. He plays one of his fast single-stroke rolls leading into the next ensemble figure. The fifth line ends with a couple of measures of single-stroke sextuplets with an unusual accent pattern. The next line shows a triplet fill that’s played in groups of four that Williams ends a tad early, just before the final flammed descending tom run. His genius crosses over the genre barrier to influence better rock drummers, too — you may have been fortunate enough to have seen or heard the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex play a great version of this song.
The New Tony Williams Lifetime
This track is a great example of Williams’ explosive playing. He’s relentlessly aggressive, slamming his drums as hard as any rock drummer, even while playing more creative and complex ideas than most drummers could imagine. Although the bulk of the song is in 3/4, the drum breaks are all in 4/4, and Williams phrases his ideas using lots of odd groupings, ghost notes, and offbeat rhythms.
The first break uses a grouping of seven, and three implied groups of five, creating a very syncopated break. For the final four measures of the first break, Williams plays a cool groove that we’ve written in 4/4 but that he phrases more as two bars of 3/4 and one of 2/4.
The second break at 1:37 begins with an accent pattern that again outlines groups of five. His second break features a triplet displaced to the e of 1. The third break has a cool triplet figure played in an ascending tom pattern that most likely repeated a sticking of rL R L. The fourth break ends with a linear figure phrased in groups of three sixteenth-notes that may have been played L-L RFR LRL RFR LFR LFR L.
The final break at 3:22 begins with Williams playing “blushdas” — a rudimental pattern he’s often credited with first adapting to the drum set that’s been widely used by drummers like Gregg Bissonette and Vinnie Colaiuta. The blushda is half of a flam drag that is repeated: rL rr L (or vice versa). This fill is slurred and its notation is an approximation of what he played. A lot of these breaks sound like he’s not going to get out of them, but since he always knows where he is, even when we don’t, he always manages a last-second escape.