Jazz Album Review: Drummer Tony Williams’s “Play or Die” — Electrifying Eclecticism

By Michael Ullman

Play or Die brilliantly showcases what Miles Davis heard in Tony Williams’s playing: variety of sound within a restricted framework.

Tony Williams, Play or Die (M.I.G Music) — will be released on July 22.

In the notes to his aptly titled Blue Note record One Step Beyond, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean tells my favorite story about that infant phenomenon (I am misusing Dickens), drummer Tony Williams. It was the week before Christmas, 1962, and McLean was to work with a local rhythm section at Connelly’s on Tremont Street in Boston. When he arrived, an industrious young man volunteered to help him with his bags. McLean thanked him. A while later, the young man returned to say that the musicians were assembled upstairs. McLean thanked him again. On stage, this young man introduced the band. Puzzled, McLean asked who the drummer was: “ME!..Tony Williams … and I am very happy to meet you, Jackie.”

Williams was 17, and looked it. He was born in Boston, and was given a drum set as a child. His first teacher was the Boston legend, the late Alan Dawson. (Williams was also Dawson’s first student.)  In the basement of his home in Lexington, Dawson told me about meeting Tony Williams: “After I got out of the Army I was living with my folks on Cedar Street in Roxbury, and right around the corner was a fellow named Williams whom I’d known for a long time. Worked at the Post Office. He said to me one day, ‘I want to show you something.’ He took me around to his house and up the attic and there was this little guy sitting behind what looked like a big set of drums. It came up to his chin. He starts playing and does some fours and he has the tune happening and he’s coming out right on four. No chops — he’s falling all over himself, but I could tell he had it. I said, ‘Gee, that’s the youngest, most talented guy I’ve seen.’ It was Tony Williams, you know.”

By 1962 the little guy, who was born on December 12, 1945, had plenty of chops. Arriving in New York when he was barely old enough to drive, he was recognized instantly as a major talent; his stunningly varied yet precise drumming — both powerful and somehow light — was heard on some of the most important new jazz records, those “one step beyond” discs made in the early ’60s. Still 17, Williams drummed on Jackie McLean’s Vertigo and One Step Beyond, Kenny Dorham’s Una Mas and Miles Davis’s Seven Steps to Heaven. He was 18 when he appeared on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure. In a few months in 1965, he performed on Charles Lloyd’s Of Course, Of Course, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, and Miles Davis’s E.S.P. He had also started his career as a leader, releasing his own Lifetime.

He was best known for his work with the Miles Davis Quintet. Herbie Hancock described the band as containing both the avant-garde, represented especially by himself and Williams, and jazz history, represented by the guy they called the Chief. Hancock commented: “I think what made the band unique was the interplay of the rhythm section, the way the ball passed around … and at the same time Miles and Wayne floated on top of the ever-revolving rhythm section sound. And just the way Tony mixed up the roles of different parts of the drums … the focus might be on a snare drum, or another time on the bass drum, or it might be totally the cymbals without any other parts of the drums.”  Miles himself noted that playing with Tony Williams was a challenge: “A lot of musicians can’t play with him because they’re used to playing on the first beat and he accents on the second and third beats if you’re in 4/4 time. Sometimes he might accent on any beat. And he might play 5/4 time for a while, and you’ve got to know about rhythms and the feel of different rhythms in order to play with him, because he might haul off and do anything rhythmically. If you don’t have any knowledge of time and different time changes, he’ll lose you.” Davis said that he instructed Williams to play the bass drum and not to neglect the sock cymbal. “Tony plays to the sound,” he said, “and what he plays to the sound is real slick shit. He might play a different tempo to each sound.”

Those of us who heard the band live will remember the way the rhythm section, left to its own devices after Davis soloed and walked off, would deliberately get lost. Hancock would drop the tempo, wander off the chord pattern and engage in a free musical discussion with Williams. Ron Carter would look on paternally. It was breathtaking. Williams and Hancock had a special musical relationship. You can hear Williams come alive behind Hancock’s solo on “Autumn Leaves” on The Miles Davis Quintet at Antibes, which has a long drum solo on “Walkin.” One can hear Hancock slow the tempo in an exploratory fashion on the “Walkin” from The Miles Davis Quintet in Berlin. (Amusingly, one can also hear Williams come in late on “Milestones.”)

Tony Williams and Tom Grant in Europe in 1980: Photo: courtesy of Tom Grant.

At times, Williams enticed the Miles Davis quintet to play freely. That wasn’t all he was about. In May 1969, at a time when he was also appearing with the Stan Getz quartet and a few months after drumming on Davis’s In a Silent Way, he made, with John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young, the startling album Emergency, a session that begins with a drum roll and then a minimal theme over what sounds like a drum solo. It’s been called a fusion album, but it is hardly the groove-based music associated with the term. Emergency is explosive and exploratory: behind McLaughlin’s solo on the title number Williams drops the beat, leading to a suggestive three-way conversation before an eerily out of tempo organ solo by Young. The trio format fit Williams, fulfilling what I hear as his need for rhythmic freedom or flexibility and at the same time an electrifying power. (Besides his own groups with their evolving personnel, one should listen to the Trio of Doom, a 1979 recording which has Williams with Jaco Pastorius and, again, John McLaughlin.)

The distressingly titled Play or Die was made in 1980 in Germany while Williams was on tour with what has been described as “a band of his own choosing that is slowly disintegrating.” The keyboard player, Tom Grant, survived the shipwreck and he suggested to Williams that he hire bassist Patrick O’Hearn, who had played with Frank Zappa. “We played with Patrick and Tony just killed it,” Grant said. “As soon as he started playing, it was like we’d taken off in a spaceship. The power of his playing, it was so physically incredible.” On May 30 and 31 this trio recorded the five numbers of Play or Die in a Stuttgart studio. The session was released — sort of — on a pressing of 500 vinyl albums. Now, for the first time, it is being made widely available.

The album is what, at the time, we called a trip. “Beach Ball Tango” opens with Williams on tom toms. Then there’s a grand statement of a simple theme (all the themes are simple). What differs from track to track is the color that Williams brings to each piece. “Jam Tune” has a simple repeated phrase stated on keyboard that is moved upwards and back again over a dark-sounding background, with Williams sounding threatening on tom toms. That is in contrast to the cheerful beat he keeps behind “The Big Man.” The session ends with Williams’s near hit composition, “There Comes a Time” with his own vocal.  Gil Evans played “There Comes a Time” regularly, and recorded it repeatedly. Matt Wilson has also recorded it. Even Williams fans have objected to his boyish vocals as well as the amateurish lyrics: “There comes a time when you’re near me.” (Perhaps tellingly, it first appeared on Williams’s record Ego.) Now that he is gone, his singing seems to bring him closer to us in a forgivable way. What’s more, here it leads to a Williams solo that is so sharp and exciting. I’d recommend this previously obscure session to any Williams fan. Play or Die brilliantly showcases what Miles Davis heard in Williams’s playing: variety of sound within a restricted framework.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

1 Comment

  1. Jan Mancuso on July 18, 2022 at 7:09 pm

    Oregonians & many more can’t wait to hear this! Tom Grant’s a Portlander & played with Jim Pepper among many. Patrick O’Hearn has a variety of musical ‘faces’ & ties to the PNW also. Tony, a force of nature for sure!

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