Tony Williams
Photo by Tom Copi

Tony Williams joined Miles Davis in 1963, setting levels of drum technique, musicality and interaction which are models for drummers today.

On Miles’ Four and More, the tightness of the rhythm section seems to give Tony the confidence and the foundation to play incredibly technical figures, vary the texture and still interact musically. His overall style is nothing short of revolutionary, no longer depending on ride cymbal and hi-hat to keep time, but rather using rim shots, varied cymbal sounds, crushed hi-hats, multiple rolls and thundering toms to propel the band. His hi-hat and bass drum chatter as much as many drummers’ snare drums—busily interacting with the soloists and the rhythm section.

Williams was particularly fond of cross-rhythms, especially three over two. On “Joshua,” he phrases the cross-rhythms over the bar lines on the 3/4 sections, and on “So What,” he and Herbie Hancock continuously set up cross-rhythms behind the soloists.

On Miles Smiles, recorded in 1966, Tony plays perhaps more freely than on Four and More, but less busy. In fact, he tends to focus on one or two sounds for the duration of each tune: On “Orbits,” cymbal and cross-stick; on “Circle,” brushes; on “Footprints,” ride cymbal; on “Dolores,” hi-hat and snare.

On “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Tony plays his hi-hat on all four beats for the duration of the tune, a device used by rock drummers today. In fact, Tony actually plays a typical rock rhythm by adding a backbeat on Wayne Shorter’s solo.

Tony’s playing on “Seven Steps To Heaven,” from Four and More, bears much resemblance to the style of Philly Joe. His ride cymbal is the basic timekeeping device, and he comps eagerly with snare, bass and hi-hat. Nevertheless, several characteristics distinguish Williams’ playing from that of his predecessors. First, he plays on the very front edge of the beat, lending a feeling of forward motion to the music. And although his ride cymbal still swings, the rhythmic pattern is closer to straight eighth notes than triplets. In addition, he is very free with his ride patterns, often changing within the space of a few measures:

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Williams’ solo on “Seven Steps To Heaven” depicts both his roots and his own progress, with much repetition of figures, cross rhythms, phrasing over the bar line and the use of space. Despite the free nature of the solo, Williams follows the form—if not in exact time, at least in melodic conception. His solo is two choruses long, with much stretching of the time. In the following transcription (first chorus), note that although Williams often phrases across bar lines, he always effects some change of texture, however subtle, to mark the form.

Tony Williams advanced the jazz drummer’s art to a new plateau. Incredibly energetic and exciting, Williams’ recordings with Miles will remain influential for years to come.

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