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By Kalamu ya Salaam Of Kalamu.com


Monday, May 26, 2008.


Since Miles Davis was the nominal leader, all this music is under the Davis name; but be not deceived, Tony Williams is both the fuel and the engine. Undoubtedly Miles designed the starship and, knowing full well what each of them could do, Miles picked the crew. Nevertheless, once they started, whether playing full out at thunderous levels or dropping completely out, the pulse was dictated by the drums of Tony Williams.

Anthony Tillmon Williams was born in 1945 in Chicago. His family moved to Boston where he was reared. He took up drums while in third grade. Before he was out of high school he was sitting in with musicians around Boston. Miles hired him when he was 18. The rest is legend.


* * *

I want to speak about ying/yang in the mode of Miles. I see three major periods in Miles’ music.


1. Everything up to Kind of Blue (1959). 2. Everything between Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew (1969). 3. Everything after Bitches Brew—this later period Miles has two parts: pre-retirement and post-retirement. The Ying-Yang mode comes mostly during the middle period: a period practically defined by the drums of Tony Williams.

The Ying is the composition. The figuring out how to compose songs that were springboards for the abstract modernism of what is sometimes referred to as Miles' second great quintet (in fact there was no third great quintet).

1st Great Quintet
Miles – trumpet
John Coltrane – sax
Red Garland – piano
Paul Chambers – bass
Philly Joe Jones – drums

2nd Great Quintet
Miles – trumpet
Wayne Shorter – sax
Herbie Hancock – piano
Ron Carter – bass
Tony Williams – drums

There is no confusing the two quintets. Both sound magnifique but they have very little in common except the leader of each is Miles. Yet, even in that regard they are different. Even though immediately identifiable as Miles, the sound of his trumpet is different in each quintet. The first quintet emphasizes Miles’ lyrical minimalism, especially the steel-strong fragility of his muted work. The second period is aggressive; the horn sound is both fatter and faster—indeed, middle period Miles is the
peak of Miles’ technique as a trumpeter.


* * *

In the Ying of first period, the melody sings. Standards and hummable songs with easily recognized melodies, the solos are variations locked in a standard form.


In the Yang of the second period, there often is no melody in the same sense. Sometimes it’s a vamp played over and over again, a single melodic line repeated with the variation in the rhythmic emphasis and rhythm patterns. Other times it’s totally abstract, a telepathic conversation about whatever. Whatever—no predetermined destination, no steady beat, no continuous anything; everything subject to change at the moment’s notice.


Which is not to say there were no compositions. Indeed, a number of modern jazz standards came from that band. (Both Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock were excellent and prolific composers.)


Indeed, "Footprints," a Wayne Shorter composition first recorded by the second great quintet, is this week’s cover feature. It is notable that both Shorter and Hancock recorded some of their most notable work outside of the Miles Davis quintet. Indeed, Hancock’s Maiden Voyage album, often considered one of the masterpieces of modern jazz, is the Miles Davis quintet with Freddie Hubbard filling the trumpet spot, and despite using mostly the same musicians the album does not sound like Miles.


The Miles Davis' personality determined the identity of the music but the musicians also had their own identities. Middle period Miles is Miles’ most balanced period and arguably his most influential, although not necessarily his most popular. Music from Miles’ middle remains a major chunk of the jazz repretoire, much more so than music of the first and third period.

Whether you dig it is not the question; consider this a lesson in how to make music on the fly. Watch how the tempo shifts, the beats come and go, the horn players make little reference to what little melody there is. There is no pre-set cycle of chord changes. Instead, there is a river run of emotional conversation between the instruments, especially the bass and drums.


* * *


“Nefertiti” is from the album Nefertiti. “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)” is from the album Filles De Kilimanjaro. “Nefertiti” is all melody. I can hear neophytes wondering when are they going to solo.

“Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)” is all soloing. Some from the old school want to know where’s the melody, where are they going, what’s going on?

What is amazing is that both songs are from mainly the same band. (“Mademoiselle Mabry” was cut during a transition period. On the Filles De Kilimanjaro album Chick Corea replaces Herbie Hancock and Dave Holland replaces Ron Carter on two cuts, including “Mademoiselle Mabry.”) The two personel changes notwithstanding, when you listen to the album the unified vision is obvious.

The common element is that both songs are led and articulated by the drums as lead instrument. It’s way past amazing. On “Nefertiti” Tony starts off establishing the walking tempo but before the first cycle of the melody is played through, Tony has fractured the beat with percussive fills that interrupt the flow, and in interrupting, he paradoxically emphasizes the flow.

If you are not a drummer it’s hard to imagine just how radical Tony’s drumming is. Traditionally, the drummer keeps the beat. In this band, that time-keeping function is given over to the bass. Tony’s drums are a total improvisation based on the unfathomable. That’s the thing—Tony is not playing rhythms, he is actually using the drums as a melodic instrument, sounding out patterns.

Meanwhile, the melodic instruments - trumpet and sax- are just playing the same melody over and over and over with only micro-inflections in timbre and rather than sounding in unison they play shadowing one another (the trumpet a bit in front of the sax). Hancock’s advanced harmonies on the piano are spare chords stabbed like an expert point guard dribbling;cross-overs, behind the backs, etc.

What I really, really dig about middle period Miles is that the music is simultaneously random abstract and intellectually rigorous, both emotionally free and emotionally engaged.


You have to know some shit to keep up with what they are doing, but they are doing it freely, not preconceiving, but rather improvising as they go along. To do this successfully requires an extremely high skill level. It requires a command of both theory and execution; a fine-tuned body and imagination up the Ying-Yang. In other words, you must see with the eyes closed. You are not creating based on what is, but rather on what you imagine could be.


* * *

Most drummers don’t even try to do what Tony Williams seemingly did with ease. I know. I was one of those drummers who used to sit listening over and over to Tony, and just shake my head and mutter: "What’s the use? I can never do that." Imagine, he was still a teenager doing what grown men who been playing for many years could not even conceive not to mention achieve!

Another Ying-Yang aspect is that “Nefertiti” has a cool sound while “Mademoiselle Mabry” is on fire. "Nefertiti" is smooth, "Mademoiselle Mabry" is jagged. You can hear it in the sound of the drums, the former moonlit oceanic flow on a tropical, idyllic tropical beach; the later a tsunami of beats crashing and dashing against a reef. And the real beauty is that one drummer could do both so well. He could roll smooth as butter, or rock hard full out solid as a red
St. Joseph
’s brick. And New Orleanians know how hard a St. Joe’s is!

On these recordings, Tony Williams has the perfect combination of Art Blakey’s unerring hard drive and Max Roach’s melodic embellishments, executed with a 1960s' sensibility. I suggest you listen to these two tracks at least one more time. I guarantee you, you’ve missed a lot, some of which you can only catch on a second, third or fourth listen. Tony Williams is so bad that it takes more than two ears to hear what he is doing!


Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.


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