Tony Williams redefined the role of the modern jazz drummer with his original and innovative vocabulary. This lesson presents some of the central themes of his lexicon as heard on the up-tempo version of “So What” from the Miles Davis record “Four” & More and provides some practical applications of these ideas.

Williams turned traditional bebop drumming on its head by freeing up the role of the drummer. He extended the parameters of a drummer’s activity with polyrhythmic command and technical virtuosity.


Tension and Release

Central to Williams’ playing is the idea of tension and release, a common feature of jazz music that displaces the listener’s musical expectations. Tony often obscures the pulse by varying the continuity of the meter. He then reverts back to a simpler rhythm in which the meter is much more explicit, providing a resolution for the listener. Implying a new meter by superimposing rhythmic groupings over the original pulse became a significant feature of his style.

Williams causes one of the first extended moments of rhythmic tension in “So What,” at the beginning of the first chorus of Herbie Hancock’s piano solo (5:58). Tony fragments the pulse with a five-beat quarter-note rhythmic cycle, notated in Exercise 1.

The cycle repeats three times, followed by further development of the idea in measure five. Due to the five-beat cycle’s repetition, the quarter notes recur in different places in each bar, causing displacement of the meter. As a result, the listener gets the sensation that beat 1 is lost.

The repeated figure in the following example also suggests a common 4/4 jazz ride pattern that starts on beat 2.

Displacement Application Exercise

In the following exercise we’ll play four bars of jazz time, then the five-beat displacement rhythm, repeated three times, followed by a return to the original feel. The hi-hat foot is played on beat 3 of each five-note cycle to enhance the effect of the implied slower tempo.

Next we’ll apply the five-note grouping to 16th notes to imply a faster tempo. This exercise works better at medium and fast tempos. Initially you may want to play ghost notes between the ride cymbal notes, and play the bass drum on beat 1 of each bar.

To further emphasize the new meter, try putting the hi-hat on the implied beats 2 and 4, as notated in Exercise 5.

Dotted Quarter–Note Superimpositions

Williams generates another implied decrease in tempo in the piano solo at 6:22 by using dotted quarter notes. Here’s what he plays.

Check out how Tony’s ride lines up with a dotted quarter–note rhythm.

Similar to the five-beat rhythmic cycle, Williams again creates the illusion of a slowed-down jazz ride pattern. This became an integral part of the drummer’s vocabulary throughout his time with Miles Davis.

Implied Metric Modulation Exercises

To get comfortable with dotted-quarter-note-modulations, start with the following exercise.

Removing the ghost notes leaves a dotted quarter–note jazz ride pattern, as notated in the second half of the next exercise. Play four bars of time followed by four bars of the implied dotted-quarter-note rhythm. To start, play the bass drum on beat 1 and the hi-hat on beats 2 and 4. You may prefer to at first play the sticking from Exercise 8 while playing the left hand on a quiet surface, such as your knee, to help you hear the subdivisions. These exercises work well in medium and fast tempos.

Now let’s keep the hi-hat foot on beats 2 and 4 while playing the bass drum on the implied beat 1.

Finally, move both the hi-hat and the bass drum to the implied tempo.

Try playing these exercises over eight-bar (or more) forms to produce a longer duration of tension.


Matt Fisher has performed and collaborated with Tina May, Jacqui Dankworth, Najma Akhtar, and Steve Waterman, among others, and has toured internationally. Matt is also an educator, an examiner for Trinity College London, and an adjudicator for the International ArtsGames Drumming Federation held in Canada. He endorses Kandu cajons.