In private lessons with educators such as John Riley, Ari Hoenig, and Greg Hutchinson, I learned how important it is to understand and embrace the conventions of the jazz idiom. The great jazz drummers of the past invented and developed a new musical language. And in order to understand any language, you have to listen to it carefully, imitate it, and then internalize its vocabulary. In this lesson we’ll examine a portion of the jazz drumming lexicon by taking a look at Tony Williams’ performance on “Walkin’” from the 1964 live Miles Davis album “Four” & More.

During a speech he made at a 1985 Zildjian Day performance, Williams said that his idea of a perfect drummer included the technique of Max Roach, the groove of Art Blakey, and the creativity of Philly Joe Jones. Williams explained that he learned entire performances by Roach, Jones, and Blakey by ear. This was illuminating, and I thought, If I transcribe Tony Williams, I could also learn from each drummer he studied.

“Walkin’” is a very fast up-tempo blues. Every week I tried to learn four measures of the tune at eighty percent of the original speed. Gradually I linked phrases together and increased the tempo. Once I learned the drum solo and the comping during Miles’ solo, I wrote out the parts. By thoroughly studying this track, I was able to notice many different aspects of Tony’s playing.



Technique

One of Tony’s signature phrases includes a fast combination of five consecutive ride notes. The figure is repeated in “Walkin’” with different variations. Here’s an example that starts at 0:16.

Williams adds the bass drum on the first 8th note at 0:34.

At 1:30, the snare replaces one of the cymbal strokes. Williams makes it seem like there are still five notes on the ride by balancing the dynamics between the bass drum, snare, and ride.

In this passage, Williams incorporates all four limbs into a phrase, which is another of his trademarks (0:47).

At 1:38, all four limbs are comping. Similar combinations can be found in Four-Way Coordination by Marvin Dahlgren and Elliot Fine and in Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer by Jim Chapin.

Language

Williams’ vocabulary reveals a deep knowledge of the bebop language. The strong influence of Jimmy Cobb, Max Roach, and Philly Joe Jones can be clearly heard. These excerpts illustrate some references to the bebop vocabulary while pushing the ideas further.

At 0:19, you can hear Williams’ bebop comping. Max Roach and Kenny Clarke often played these ideas.

You can hear this next figure played by Jimmy Cobb on some live Miles Davis recordings from the late ’50s and early ’60s. You can end this fill on beat 4 or the downbeat of the following measure (0:50).

At 1:35, Tony plays a rimclick on the fourth beat, which is typical of Art Blakey and other hard-bop drummers.

Innovations

Tony reinvented comping by introducing polyrhythms, implied modulations, and longer phrases. “Walkin’” features a few of these moments. Check out how he phrases two- and three-note groupings at 0:36.

There’s another example of three-note groupings at 0:57.

At 1:07, Tony creates an alternating effect between hi-hat splashes and the snare.

This powerful fill at 1:16 isn’t resolved until beat 4 of the following measure.


Ruben Bellavia plays with international jazz musicians including Antonio Faraò, Fabio Giachino, and Fabrizio Bosso, among others. Bellavia endorses Inima snare drums, Istanbul Agop cymbals, and Vater drumsticks. For more info, visit rubenbellavia.com.