Tony Williams is considered one of the most important innovators of the drum set. His facility, energy, and creativity were unmatched while playing blazingly fast tempos with stunning clarity in Miles Davis’s second great quintet as a mere teenager. He has been inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame and the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, and his contributions to jazz/rock fusion drumming in the late-’60s and early-’70s inﬂuenced many rock and funk drummers in the ’70s and beyond. Tony Williams brought intensity, style, and innovation to the music he played and created a legacy that will stand the test of time.
“Seven Steps to Heaven”
Miles Davis, Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)
This is one of the breakout performances of a then 17-year-old Williams. The tempo is relatively quick, and the melody features drum breaks that are as recognizable as the tune itself. In addition to playing clear, tasteful comping throughout, Williams plays a simple, melodic solo over the form. This is a great entry point for people who have never listened to Tony Williams or Miles Davis’s second great quintet.
Jackie McLean, One Step Beyond (1963)On the verge of avant-guard, this tune and band push the boundaries of a straight-ahead approach to a hard-bop by playing a little more “out” melodically and harmonically. The melody is simply a riﬀ that is repeated while the band improvises around it, and Williams provides an interactive drive throughout.
“So What” (Live)
Miles Davis, Four & More (1964)
This is a great rendition of the ﬁrst track from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. A notably faster version of the tune, Ron Carter kicks the bassline oﬀ at more than double the pace of the original. There is great interaction, repetition, and energy throughout this tune.
Miles Davis, Four & More (1964)
Also faster than the original, Williams plays a subtle hi-hat and snare intro calling back slightly the original played by Philly Joe Jones. Williams keeps the energy high and the dynamics relatively low throughout all the solos, but his ride cymbal playing is the real star of this track. It is light, varied, with a clear articulation, and often played without the other limbs, yet the time is pushing forward with a constant momentum.
Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Isles (1964)
Crossing over into an almost R&B approach to the time feel, this is some of the most repetitive playing Williams ever recorded. The concept here is more “part-oriented” accompaniment than in most jazz drumming. This is a great “gateway to jazz” for people who listen to pop or rock.
“Out to Lunch”
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (1964)This tune and album are cited among the classic “free jazz” recordings. The soloists abandon the form, harmony, time, and tempo of the melody, and the entire band responds in a completely spontaneous way. Although it can be a challenge for some listeners, free improvisation like this allows for unique moments that can’t be planned or recreated.
Miles Davis, E.S.P. (1965)
Named after the telepathic-like musical communication between the members of the band, this tune is a great example of exactly that. This band started abandoning the formal structures and chord changes of the tunes and started getting more “out” with their improvisation style. Another uptempo tune, this one has a particularly nice hookup in the bass and drum time, and in the soloist and comping interaction.
“Stella By Starlight”
Miles Davis, Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965)
Played as a rubato ballad, the band takes the tune into medium swing time around the two-minute mark, and into double-time shortly thereafter. Williams toys with half-time and double-time feels throughout, which changes the vibe and energy during the solos. This is a good representation of stretching the boundaries of a standard while improvising.
Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (1965)
Breaking from the swing tradition in most of the earlier examples, this piece has an almost “boogaloo” time feel that falls between straight and swing. With a modal harmonic approach, this tune is very repetitious in the bass and piano, giving Tony lots of room to stretch out and be creative with the drum part.
Miles Davis, Nefertiti (1967)
This album features one of the most legendary cymbal sounds of all time, often emulated and referenced by cymbal companies and independent cymbal makers worldwide. This song has an incredible slow-build arc that lasts for the entirety of the track. In a break from the traditional head-solos-head form, the horn players continually repeat the melody as the rhythm section improvises collectively.
The Tony Williams Lifetime, Emergency! (1969)
This is a perfect example of Tony’s “four on the hat” approach; he plays quarter notes on the hi-hat with his left foot throughout. This trio maintains ﬁerce energy through the virtuosic improvisations, paving the way for some even more intense recordings and bands to come. It could even be said that this drumming style is the precursor to punk and blast beats.
The Tony Williams Lifetime, Turn it Over (1970)
This has perhaps the most “rock ’n’ roll” sound and feel of anything on this playlist. The riﬀ in this tune could easily be mistaken for something by Iron Butterﬂy or The Doors. However, Williams’ shredding over said riﬀ is unmistakably him. By this time in his career, he was playing bigger drums, bigger cymbals, and more single-stroke oriented improvisation.
“Some Hip Drum Sh*t”
The Tony Williams Lifetime, Ego (1971)
A venture into percussion ensemble music, this recording features multiple drummers and percussionist playing a mix of ensemble passages and improvisation. This recording features classical percussion such as timpani, as well as drum set and Latin percussion rhythms and instruments such as cowbell and timbales.
The New Tony Williams Lifetime, Believe It (1975)
One of Tony’s many great recordings as a leader, this tune has a simple almost pop-like melody with driving bass and drums underneath as well as epic rock-style drum ﬁlls. The solo sections feature shredding keyboards and guitar with a wall of sound being created by the bass and drums.
Trio of Doom, Trio of Doom (1979)
This band plays blazing tempos of jazz and concepts of free improvisation with ampliﬁed guitars and electric bass employing rock sensibilities. This is fast, loud, and busy playing that inspired a whole genre of rock and funk fusion musicians. It truly is three virtuoso players all giving it everything they’ve got.
Wayne Salzmann II is a drummer, educator, composer, and author who spent 12 years on the Jazz Faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to extensive touring and six studio albums with Grammy-winning guitarist Eric Johnson, Salzmann has performed/recorded with Steve Miller, Kenny Rogers, Kris Kristoﬀerson, Christopher Cross, Joe Satriani, Mike Stern, Robben Ford, Chris Potter, Dick Oatts, Bob Schneider, the UT Jazz Faculty, and the San Antonio Symphony among others. He is a member of the PAS Drum Set Committee and teaches online and in person from his private studio in central Wisconsin. For more information, visit waynesalzmann.com.