Nineteen sixty-nine America was a turbulent time, rumbling underfoot with the quakes of change. In that year, Tony Williams’ drumming graced two significant and dramatically different albums. On his final recording with Miles Davis, In a Silent Way, he would lay down the most minimal performance he ever committed to tape. On the other LP, Emergency!, which debuted his trio the Tony Williams Lifetime, Tony delivered some of the most muscular, unbridled cyclone-drumming of his career. Yet as polar as those recordings are, both became watersheds with long-term influences that opened the doors for jazz fusion.

During his years with Miles Davis, beginning in 1963 at age seventeen, Tony Williams radically changed jazz drumming. His astonishing six-and-a-half-year stint with the iconic trumpet player shook up previous concepts of straight-ahead jazz drumming with his blistering, independent conversational slipstream. In 1969, he would trailblaze once again with his merging of rock and soul elements into jazz.

As Miles’ youngest sideman, Tony had been reared in the rock generation, persistently turning Miles on to current sounds, including Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and had dropped a copy of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into his hands. Also coaxing Miles was sideman Herbie Hancock, as well as his girlfriend-later-wife of the time, R&B vocalist Betty Mabry, who hipped the trumpeter to funk-rockers like Sly Stone. As In a Silent Way and subsequent LPs would prove, Miles was absorbing these new inspirations and filtering them through his own vision.

In the mid ’60s, Miles released a string of increasingly progressive classic LPs for Columbia Records with his young virtuoso band, who were informally dubbed the Second Great Quintet: tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and Williams. But with the arrival of the In a Silent Way sessions, Miles’ unorthodox choice of format made it clear that he was searching beyond the pioneering quintet for an even greater departure. The new octet featured Williams, Shorter, bassist Dave Holland, and electric guitarist John McLaughlin, along with three electric pianists: Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul (who also played organ), and Hancock. The result is a confirmed classic and one of the major turning points of Miles’ catalog.

Yet its release sparked divisiveness in Miles fandom. Ironically, what naysayers favoring the pre-In a Silent Way Miles didn’t realize was that this shift was merely a ripple in a koi pond compared to the tsunami soon to come: the thoroughly radical and divisive electric excursion, Bitches Brew, being recorded (August 19–21, 1969) even as they sulked.

The In a Silent Way tracks were cut in a single day (February 18, 1969). Each side of the LP featured one extended track, both exuding a mystical, meditative aura. No longer is there a lead “head” melody and a chord cycle that is improvised upon. In fact, on the A side, “Shhh/Peaceful,” there is no defined melody (only a respliced-in segment taken from a trumpet solo). With exposition cast aside, the musical focus turns to sitting in various minimal grooves in open-ended forms. The rhythm section development unfurls very gradually and ever so subtly while the keyboards and guitar build layers of color, harmonies, and skittering percussive runs. Holland leans long on a simple rhythmic bass pedal while Tony introduces a subtle locomotion, playing hi-hat 16ths for a full six minutes before a brief dropout and then resumes. Eight minutes in, Holland gets funkier and Tony responds, increasing the open/closed variations of the hi-hat. The band sculpts a mesmerizing arc over a nearly eighteen-minute span without Tony straying far from his hi-hat commitment.

Side B, “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” once again emerges with a pedal point, with McLaughlin stating the title tune’s melody, composed by Zawinul, in a wandering, almost folkloric drone. In the 2001 box set The Complete in a Silent Way Sessions, a rehearsal reel reveals the band playing this segment in time with numerous chord changes while Tony plays a simple cross-stick pattern suggesting a bossa-ish groove. But in the final version the chord changes are minimized, Tony lays out, and the theme is played rubato. Tony instead transfers the use of crossstick to the following “It’s About That Time” segment, this time stripping down to a simple but urgent all-quarters pattern.

As the collective improvisation unfolds, Tony subtly fills the quarters in with 8ths, varying between hi-hat, snare taps, and a stick-on-cross-stick flam effect, building tension over a long trajectory. Finally, a repetitive bluesy soul organ/bass riff is introduced. Not until passing the thirteen-minute mark does Tony finally uncork the pressure, exploding into the full kit with a big wide cymbal ride and rollicking syncopated rock-soul groove. The track winds back down until the opening rubato section is spliced back in as a finale. The album shared the methods of rock records in using the studio as an instrument in itself: the keep-the-tape-rolling session was edited, spliced, and also resequenced by producer Teo Macero to create a new tableau—a highly unorthodox practice in jazz at the time.

It’s unclear whether Miles had given a minimalist directive to Tony or if he was just feeling it. Certainly Miles’ own soloing was also unusually reserved and the bass lines both simplified and repetitive—a soul/rock influence that would escalate on future albums. Either way, the drumming choices are ideal for complementing a canvas that’s ethereal yet grooving in its own organic, idiosyncratic way. Some devotees consider the disc to be the beginning of Miles’ “electric period,” though in fact electric instruments had been introduced into previous Miles discs. Others consider it to be the first fusion album. But the demarcation cannot be so specific; the disc did not appear from a void. One thing is clear: the classic is certainly a bridge, a decisive statement that Miles was moving on. In truth, the alluring unexpected beauty of the disc is that it exists on its own plane, an anomaly in the extensive Miles catalog.

 

Transitions

The sessions would eventually reveal themselves to be the nexus of what would become the more clearly defined fusion genre, marked by a thoroughly electric sound infused with rhythmic complexity and unfettered ultra-chops. In addition to Tony, other sidemen from the sessions would also become spearheads of the fusion genre: McLaughlin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Corea with Return to Forever, Zawinul with Weather Report, and Hancock with his Headhunters.

Attentive Miles fans would have noticed that well before In a Silent Way, Tony had been planting rock/soul-influenced seeds on previous Second Great Quintet releases (and on the 1964 title track of Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island). On E.S.P. (1965), Tony dabbled with these elements on “Eighty-One,” suggesting a jazzy variation of a boogaloo beat—the mix of soul with a Latin influence—playing a straight-8ths groove leaning towards 2 and the “and” of 3. Still, it lies well within the jazz drumming vocabulary of the day; notable examples include the similarly influenced grooves Billy Higgins played on Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” But things become more forward-looking on “Stuff,” from Miles in the Sky (July 1968).

Laying it down in tandem with the rare instance of Carter using electric bass, Tony plays an even firmer soul-derived groove bridged with hellacious over-the-bar fills and adventurous variations. But a truly decisive leap is heard on “Frelon Brun” from Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968). Tony is still playing on his beloved pre-Lifetime small Gretsch kit with an 18″ bass drum, but a more aggressive sound, energy, and concept have emerged. Taking a cue from Clyde Stubblefield’s groove on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” Tony turbo-charges it via adventurous variations, furiously filling around his patterns as Carter grounds it with his broken 8th-note bass pattern. The stage was set for Tony’s next moves.

Even before the Silent Way sessions, Tony was itching to fly the Miles nest. In sum, he felt that jazz itself was in a bubble. Reflecting on that transitional previous year, Tony told DownBeat in a 1970 interview, “I had to find something completely different to throw myself into…It would be disastrous for me to try to get a group, a quintet, saxophone, and make nice pleasant records….” And recalling first hearing the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced, he added, “The sound of it, you know, with all that electricity…not presence electricity but amplified electricity, the sound of the guitars, and that started to excite me…”

 

Emergency!

Departing from Miles, the restless drummer formed the Tony Williams Lifetime, featuring McLaughlin and organist phenom Larry Young (credited as Khalid Yasin), and promptly recorded Emergency! Completed in two days (May 26 and 28, 1969) and released later that year, the Polydor Records double LP was a daring blast-furnace session destined to be a seminal fusion/jazzrock landmark. Although Miles’ Bitches Brew has received greater acknowledgment as a fusion genesis, Emergency! was recorded three months prior.

The album opens with Tony playing a pressed roll swelling into an aggressive solo flurry, followed by bracing distorted/ saturated guitar and organ chords. They dive into a brawny, edgy swing, but the sound is not swing, especially as the guitar explodes into crunching aggression and Tony lowers the hammer, hitting all fours on the snare under an ensemble riff.

As Emergency! unfolds, Tony unleashes fiery rock/soul-based grooves interconnected with continuous cascades of fills and flourishes, somewhere between prog-rock and free jazz. “Sangria for Three” gets into funk-rock territory, while “Via the Spectrum Road” explores a cosmic blues in 11/8. And on “Vashkar,” Tony takes his explosive multilevel barrage to its apex with an almost continuous drum-solo-groove flow. In a bracing finale, the avant-garde-ish head of “Something Special” gives way to a repetitive riff in six for Tony to feverishly solo over.

Whereas its harmonies are pulled from jazz, the rock element of Emergency! Is primarily in its defiant energy, loud electric sound, power soloing from all members, and rock/soul-derived grooves. The twenty-three-year-old drummer’s stunning, ecstatic performance screams, “Liberation!”

Several cuts include Tony’s oddly lacking vocals and awkward lyrics. But those passages are brief, and their quirkiness can be forgiven in context of the unapologetic go-for-it spirit of Emergency!

In a 2008 Modern Drummer interview, John McLaughlin reminisced about his experiences playing with Tony: “I learned to stay on my toes. The way he felt time was wonderful. His groove was just amazing, but he had a sense of dynamics that was revolutionary. And he taught me a lot about phrasing. He was a very honest musician, just like Miles.”

The liner notes from the album’s later reissue on CD cite an oft-repeated tale that the frequently distorted audio quality of Emergency! was due to careless engineers unused to such high volumes on a jazz recording. But that seems highly unlikely since there would be numerous playbacks over the course of a double-LP session. More likely, upon hearing playback results—whether initially a mistake or not—Tony went with his rock-inspired instincts and let the meters ride hard into the red.

 

Impressions

Despite the initial controversies, In a Silent Way was a commercial success that reaped steadily increasing crossover appeal with new, younger audiences, bolstered by the emergence of FM/college radio formats. And while Emergency! largely earned critical praise, it faltered commercially. The following two Lifetime releases struggled even further.

Oddly, some jazz purists accused Tony of “selling out” because he dared to consort with rock. “Everything I’ve done,” Tony told MD in 1984, “I’ve done because I enjoyed doing it. Also, I didn’t want to repeat what I had already done.” Tony further recalled that when he was with Miles, he had a Beatles poster on his wall. “When I was with Miles,” he explained, “I was seventeen…so why would people find it odd that I like that music? When I was growing up I would watch American Bandstand when I came home from school. I was leading two lives.” Trumpeter Wallace Roney, who was a member of Tony’s mid-’80s quintet, said in a 2008 DownBeat tribute issue, “He felt the critics never credited him for being the innovative jazz drummer he was, the one who started fusion.”

Regardless of Tony’s dispiritedness on this account, drummer Lenny White offered a wider perspective on potential music-genre debates. As a drummer who professed to be highly influenced by Tony—and who along with Jack DeJohnette and Don Alias succeeded Tony to perform on Bitches Brew—White gave the ultimate accolade to the groundbreaking drummer. Following Tony’s death in 1997, he told MD in a tribute issue, “Tony transcended any kind of music he played, and the music became ‘Tony Williams Music,’ whether it was rock ’n’ roll, fusion, or jazz.”