How To Trade Phrases Like Tony Williams

Tony Williams Trades Phrases On Last Solo Album


On February 23, 1997, one of the great innovators of jazz drumming passed away. Tony Williams left behind a musical legacy that inspired generations of musicians. From his energetic yet musical approach as a teenager with the Miles Davis Quintet, to his groundbreaking drumming in Miles’ later recordings and his own Lifetime groups – where he literally gave birth to fusion drumming – Williams changed the face of drumming forever.

Williams’ last recording has just been released, and was recorded in 1996, the year before he died. It’s a trio date called Young at Heart, with Mulgrew Miller at the piano and Ira Coleman on bass – both of whom were the heart of the Tony Williams Quintet during the ’80s. “I met Tony just before we recorded Foreign Intrigue,” says Miller. “In that first recording session I just remember being awed by his prowess at the drums. I went on to become a member of the quintet that he formed after that record. It was 1986 when we first performed and that lasted for about six and a half years. Then I didn’t work with him for quite a while. We started doing some trio things again in ’96. Young at Heart is the only record from that trio work.”

After even a casual listen to Williams’ recorded work, one will quickly recognize that he was a musician who pushed the envelope, and was never satisfied to rest on his laurels. Miller attests to seeing that spirit in Williams. “The thing that always held my interest about Tony was his great capacity for learning,” Miller says. “He was interested in everything going on around him, including things outside of music. Tony had been to racing car school. He wanted to learn to fly airplanes. He had that kind of daredevil spirit.

“A lot of people who didn’t really get to know Tony probably didn’t realize how much he cared about humanity. He spoke about that several times to me. He was an amazing human being. This man was involved with music on a deeper level than almost anybody else I’ve ever met. Tony really wanted to understand what music meant. He wanted to get to the meaning of everything.

“Tony didn’t only have knowledge. He had insight, a kind of an intuitive understanding of the meaning of rhythm. That’s why he was able to do what he did at the drums, because he understood rhythm at its deepest level. It wasn’t just a matter of knowing this drummer or that drummer on this or that recording. Tony wasn’t just playing rhythmic patterns. He understood rhythm on a creative level.”

Miller experienced that creativity on many nights while playing with Williams, and was constantly in awe. “Tony did have motifs he worked from,” he remembers. “But he had a knack for stating these motifs and then developing them during the course of a solo, and it would always be different every night. You could count on some great surprise that was explosive and creative.”

How did Williams gain such an intuitive approach? He was undoubtedly born with a great talent, but even talent must be nurtured. Williams developed his drumming skills at a young age, but developed other important skills as well. Miller told us about one of the most important ones: “He was one of the best listeners that I’ve ever seen. I’d always heard that the greatest musicians were the best listeners. When Tony spoke of recordings that he admired, he knew everything that was going on that recording, not just what the drummer did. Say he was talking about some Miles record: he knew everything that was going on. He knew what the bass player was doing, he knew how the piano player was comping, he could sing Coltrane’s solo. He could sing Miles’ solo. He knew the most minute details.”

On Young At Heart Williams looked to his own musical roots to help keep the approach fresh and new. “Tony wanted to get back to doing some things that he felt he had left behind,” Miller explains. “Playing standards is one of those things. When he called to ask me about doing a trio thing he said, ’I would just like to see if I can play a little differently.’ I think he wanted to get back into playing brushes more and working with the standard song forms.”

The transcriptions that follow are taken from standards that most jazzers will be familiar with. There are two eight-bar examples and four four-bar examples from “On Green Dolphin Street,” as well as six four-bar examples from “You and the Night and the Music.” The transcriptions are in eight- and four-bar phrases, since they come from sections during which the players traded phrases. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that practice, it involves a bandmember – in this case, Miller at the piano – taking either a four- or eight-bar solo, and the drums responding with a solo of the same length. Sometimes it’s only two bars and other times it’s longer, but four- and eight-bar phrases are the most common. This is done while staying true to the form and the harmonic content contained within the particular song.

Miller recalls that recording these four-bar phrases was a bit of a challenge for Williams: “That’s another one of the things that he wanted to get back to. He hadn’t done that in years. That was something that by then was completely out of his thinking. We never did that on any tune in the quintet. Tony had developed this concept of soloing over the years that was more like a compositional thing. A solo for him was a thing that was composed over a period of minutes. So for him to play a four-bar phrase and get back into the tune was a challenge – one that he accepted with valor, of course. He just hadn’t done it in so long, it was challenge for him to play four bars of something and get out of it.”

Williams wasn’t familiar with Miller’s piano work before their first recording session in 1986, but Miller certainly knew of and admired Williams’ drumming. Their years of working together allowed Miller’s admiration to grow beyond the man’s stick work. “As I got to know him on a personal level trough the years I was continually amazed at his intelligence, his intense involvement with music and his love for the drums.”

These transcriptions may help you to grow as a drummer, or to understand a little more about Tony Williams’ approach to the drum set, but this is only a glimpse into a whole world of music that this drumming legend helped create. Let these figures inspire you to study and continue to learn, just as Williams did.

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