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Return to Blue Note: Tony Williams In The Late 1980s

Tony Williams was renowned as one of the great drummers of jazz. His late-1980s acoustic quintet highlights his compositional skills as well.

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Tony Williams Mosaic Select

Photo: CD cover art.

Mosaic Records has reissued Williams' 1980s studio recordings for Blue Note in a 3-CD anthology.

On this program we highlight the late-1980s acoustic quintet recordings of drummer Tony Williams. Williams was one of the great prodigies of jazz, playing with both Sam Rivers and Jackie McLean as a teenager before joining Miles Davis as part of the trumpeter’s great mid-1960s group. Williams also recorded two dates as a leader for Blue Note and went on to form the pioneering fusion trio Lifetime (with organist Larry Young and guitarist John McLaughlin).

The Fruits of a Sabbatical

A later edition of the band proved to be less artistically satisfying, and in the late 1970s Williams changed direction. He began playing acoustic jazz again with VSOP, which was basically the mid-1960s Miles Davis quintet with Freddie Hubbard substituting for Miles on trumpet; and he also left Manhattan for the San Francisco area. He said he felt like he was in a rut, “not doing what I had the talent to do: write music, have a band, have better relationships.”

After a sabbatical in the early 1980s to hone his compositional skills (spent in part studying composition at the University of California at Berkeley), Williams came back to Blue Note and recorded a remarkable series of albums that highlighted his writing with a group featuring trumpeter Wallace Roney and pianist Mulgrew Miller. Those records have been reissued in a three-CD collection from Mosaic Records.

Not Just “Tony Williams, Drummer”

In an interview published near the end of his late Blue Note period, Williams talked at length about how much satisfaction compostion had given him, saying, “I felt like all everybody wanted was this drummer, that Tony Williams was not there, that I didn’t matter. And it caused me a lot of emotional pain. I’m not talking about fans, I’m talking about the people I worked with. That was the pain, that if I weren’t this drummer I wouldn’t have these people as friends… Playing drums has always been easy for me. From an early age it was so easy to figure out stuff, it was almost embarrassing. I needed to prove to myself that I was deserving of all the praise, needed to feel that I’d accomplished something… I needed to tackle something that was hard, that wasn’t God-given, and see it grow. That’s what writing music has been, and is, for me. Writing music, that’s work. Drumming has never been work, it’s always been fun. It’s still fun.. I’ve finally gained trust in these other parts of myself. I’m not just ‘Tony Williams, drummer.’ And that feels pretty neat.”

Watch the Tony Williams Quintet performing the title track from the 1986 album Civilization:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sHjd4EULHM

Music Heard On This Episode

City of Lights (excerpt)
Tony Williams — Native Heart (Blue Note, 1989)
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City of Lights (excerpt)
Tony Williams — Native Heart (Blue Note, 1989)

Notes: Tony Williams composition, also available on the Mosaic Select set.

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Foreign Intrigue
Tony Williams — Foreign Intrigue (Blue Note, 1985)

Notes: Tony Williams composition, also available on the Mosaic Select set.

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Soweto Nights
Tony Williams — Civilization (Blue Note, 1987)

Notes: Tony Williams composition. Also available on the Mosaic Select set.

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Dreamland
Tony Williams — Angel Street (Blue Note, 1988)

Notes: Tony Williams composition. Also available on the Mosaic Select set.

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Geo Rose
Tony Williams — Civilization (Blue Note, 1987)

Notes: midpoint music bed.

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Red Mask
Tony Williams — Angel Heart (Blue Note, 1988)

Notes: Tony Williams composition. Also on the Mosaic Select set.

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Pee Wee
Tony Williams — Angel Street (Blue Note, 1988)

Notes: Tony Williams composition. Also on Mosaic Select set.

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The Story of Neptune: Fear Not
Tony Williams — The Story of Neptune (Blue Note, 1992)

Notes: Tony Williams composition. Also on the Mosaic Select set.

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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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