The Tony Williams Lifetime - Emergency! Music Album Reviews

The Tony Williams Lifetime - Emergency! Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the birth of jazz fusion, a combustive 1969 album led by a prodigious drummer striking out on his own. 

One night in the fall of 1969, at a Manhattan club called Ungano’s, Herbie Hancock willingly put his hearing at risk. He was there to catch Lifetime, a new trio led by Tony Williams, his former bandmate in Miles Davis’ revolutionary 1960s quintet. He didn’t know what to call the music being played that night by Williams, organist Larry Young, and guitarist John McLaughlin. But he sensed that the experience was worth the aural toll. 

“It was loud,” Hancock later recalled of the gig. “It was the loudest stuff I ever heard in my life. It was louder than rock’n’roll. I said to myself, ‘This is something new.’ … It was exciting and very arresting. It snatched you. It yanked you out of your seat. A lot of the people couldn’t take the volume. They got up and left. I also knew that if I stayed, I would pay the price in later years with my hearing. I consciously made the bad decision to listen anyway.”

When Miles heard the trio amped-up and jamming at a Harlem club, he promptly recruited McLaughlin for the session that would produce the 1969 ambient-jazz landmark In a Silent Way. That album and its 1970 follow-up, Bitches Brew, would come to be known as foundational texts of jazz-rock fusion. But as startling as those Miles dispatches were, and as entrancing as each remains more than a half-century on, neither fully harnessed the volume and volatility of contemporary rock. The true big bang of fusion arrived right on the heels of In a Silent Way, and well before Bitches Brew: Emergency!, the Tony Williams Lifetime’s aptly named 1969 debut.

Crank up the opening title track, jeopardizing your ears as Hancock did, and you’ll hear, within the first minute, jazz-rock’s fiery inception. Williams plays a taut snare-roll crescendo and the band enters with a blaring four-chord vamp, McLaughlin’s guitar bathed in fuzz and wah and Young’s Hammond B-3 framed by ominous distortion. Williams rampages through the riff—hammering the bass-drum pedal, syncopating furiously on the snare, rolling on the toms, exploding across the cymbals—while still conveying seismic waves of groove. The collective sound suggests Jimi Hendrix, Keith Emerson, and Clyde Stubblefield jamming on the rim of an active volcano. Just when it seems like Williams’ kit might splinter, the band downshifts gracefully into simmering swing, with the drummer playing springy jazz time on the ride, McLaughlin picking out nimble lines and Young adding chugging chords.

As with every transition in the piece, Williams’ otherworldly dynamic control makes this abrupt shift seem as though it’s cushioned by velvet. Later, the band builds to a thrash-funk theme reprise, driven by Young’s muscular bassline, during which you can hear one of the musicians (McLaughlin, perhaps?) whooping at the outrageousness of it all.

“Here is where we take a giant step into the future,” Lester Bangs wrote of Emergency! in a Rolling Stone review. He went on to characterize Williams, McLaughlin, and Young as “jazz musicians who have seen through the smog of pop artifice and picked up on the very best that rock has to offer, making their music a totally unique entity.”

Before a 23-year-old Tony Williams essentially willed fusion into existence, he’d spent his first few years on the scene revitalizing the rhythmic vocabulary of jazz. Already a star drummer by the time he was a teenager, he gigged regularly in his hometown of Boston with organist Johnny “Hammond” Smith and saxophonist Sam Rivers. In December 1962, days after Williams’ 17th birthday, he shared a local bandstand with saxophonist Jackie McLean, who immediately invited him to move to New York. During the next several years, the drummer appeared on a staggering array of adventurous, now-classic jazz albums—including McLean’s One Step Beyond, trombonist Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution, multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, pianist Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure and Rivers’ Fuchsia Swing Song—goading musicians a decade or two older than him with a hyper-alert style built around crisp articulation, jutting accents, and the artful dilation and contraction of tempo. Meanwhile, Davis drafted him into the quintet—with Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and, eventually, saxophonist Wayne Shorter—that would come to be known as one of the greatest jazz groups ever. Williams was the band’s designated upsetter, adding an impulsive urgency that beautifully offset Shorter’s moody compositions.  

Seemingly anytime Davis recalled his collaboration with Williams, a string of effusive expletives would flow. “I had heard this great little 17-year-old drummer…who just blew my fucking mind,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, adding that “I could definitely hear right away that this was going to be one of the baddest motherfuckers who had ever played a set of drums.” In a 1969 Miles interview in Rolling Stone, conducted after Williams had left his band and formed Lifetime, the trumpeter sounded like he was feeling the drummer’s absence. After avowing that “Tony can swing and play his ass off,” and again labeling him a “motherfucker,” Davis added, “I don’t think there’s a drummer alive can do what Tony Williams can do.”

Williams had idolized Miles, and both participants and observers viewed the Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams quintet as pivotal, but he knew the gig wasn’t his ultimate destiny. In the later years of his tenure with the trumpeter, as the drummer later explained to Down Beat, “I started living under a kind of cloud. Miles is a very strong personality. He has definite ideas about what he wants. There, you live in his world. Living in someone else’s world is not easy. I was subject to his whims and desires and caprices. It took me a long time to realize that and to get out of it.”

At the same time, he was brimming with fresh musical inspiration, drawn in part from voracious listening. In Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, the pianist credits Williams as a constant source of new and challenging sounds during the ’60s, turning him on to radical composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. “I was always asking him, ‘What are you listening to?’ because I knew I’d learn something,” Hancock wrote. 

While keeping up with the latest avant-garde developments, Williams also soaked in the pop music of the day. He’d grown up on doo-wop in the ’50s, even singing lead in a group called the Monticellos, and in the ’60s, to the dismay of some of his jazz peers, he became a proud Beatlemaniac, an enthusiasm that would endure for the rest of his life. As rock got progressively wilder, and louder, throughout the decade, the drummer was paying close attention. He would later characterize Turn It Over, the second Lifetime album, as “my version of Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5. For Emergency!, other rock luminaries like Cream, the Who, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience lit the spark.

In interviews conducted in the early Lifetime era, Williams spoke of amplified, overdriven rock as if it were a tractor beam, drawing him in. “I started hearing a lot of electricity,” he told Down Beat in 1970, citing Hendrix’s Are You Experienced as a touchstone, "…and that started to excite me, and I wanted to hear more of that.”

If Lifetime’s rock trappings were staunchly contemporary, the group’s basic makeup pointed backward roughly a decade, to Williams’ early days working alongside Johnny “Hammond” Smith. In that earlier era, the organ trio was seen as the pinnacle of swinging soulfulness, the instrument itself acting as a direct link between modern jazz and traditional gospel and blues. “I wanted an electric group, to have an organ trio which would go back to my roots in Boston, when I played in the late ’50s and early ’60s,” he later reflected. “I figured why not do that but make it more aggressive, more rock-oriented than blues-oriented? That was the premise. There’s nothing new, it’s just how you use it and how you put it together.”

The format may have been retro, but the personnel was state-of-the-art, with two virtuosos that Williams handpicked from very different backgrounds. In the early-to-mid-’60s, Newark-born Larry Young had progressed from soul jazz—sometimes working in the classic organ/guitar/drums format that Williams revived with Lifetime—to forward-looking post-bop. McLaughlin had spent the prior decade as a guitarist for hire on the London scene, playing jazz, blues, and R&B with future members of Cream and Led Zeppelin, among many others, while keeping close tabs on the innovations of Miles and John Coltrane. Hearing a tape of McLaughlin playing at London jazz mecca Ronnie Scott’s, Willliams appreciated that the guitarist was playing, as the drummer later said, in “a very aggressive way, not so politely,” and quickly called and invited him to New York.

Emergency! is a sprawling statement, a double album lasting 70 minutes. But one of the fullest realizations of Williams’ Hendrix-meets-“Hammond” Smith concept is the relatively brief “Vashkar.” Pianist Paul Bley had previously recorded the tune, penned by his then-wife Carla, as a pensive mood piece; in Lifetime’s hands, it’s an uptempo prog-jazz burner. Driven by a tumbling Williams pulse, the trio dances through the complex stop-start theme, ending each iteration with a dramatic full-band rest. Then, in the middle of McLaughlin’s scrambling solo, Williams starts playing an embryonic version of an extreme-metal blastbeat, alternating snare and bass in rapid succession while rising precipitously in volume, as Young joins in with shuddering note clusters. During Young’s solo, the organist seems to incite Williams to repeat the move with his increasingly frenzied lines, and soon all three musicians are hurtling toward a supernova climax. In these heated exchanges, you hear the thunderous echo of Williams’ earlier acoustic playing, as though he’d found a way to extrapolate an entire group language out of the rambunctious charge he’d previously brought to Miles and other bandleaders. For the drummer, the Emergency! title itself underscored the way the record acted as a kind of manifesto: “It was an emergency for me to leave Miles and put that band together,” he later said. “And I wanted to play an emerging music that was my own.”

“Sangria for Three,” a kaleidoscopic 13-minute suite penned by Williams, is the album’s rangiest piece: an ideal showcase for the band’s genre-detonating approach. Cycling deftly through grinding acid-rock groove, scampering white-knuckle jams and freeform noise duets between McLaughlin and Young, the track could almost pass for a fragment of a Mars Volta bootleg. In a more just world, we’d have numerous live takes of “Sangria for Three” to pore over, à la better-known epics of the day like “Dark Star,” “Soul Sacrifice” or “21st Century Schizoid Man.” But the Emergency! version is enough to instantly debunk the notion, born out of later, slicker iterations of jazz-rock, that fusion was an inherently polite or calculatedly commercial movement. Don’t let the track’s breezy title fool you: As much as, say, “Sister Ray” the year before or “Fun House” the year after, this is punk before punk.

An instrumental album by this trio would have felt plenty provocative to both the jazz and rock establishments, especially one with the audaciously overdriven sound of Emergency! (Williams himself was unhappy with the album’s production: “It sounded distorted,” he said at the time, pejoratively.) But there was another facet of Emergency! that made it challenging even for sympathetic listeners: the drummer’s decision to include his own highly eccentric vocals on three prominent tracks. Easily the strangest is “Via the Spectrum Road,” co-credited to Williams and McLaughlin, which alternates a languid 11/8 funk groove with march-like improv interludes. On top, Williams speak-sings couplets seemingly drawn from the touring life (“Rain on the ground/In every town”; “Club owner’s wife/Causes strife”). The piece feels like an oddly casual tangent on an otherwise urgent album. The most convincing use of vocals on Emergency! comes on “Where,” a McLaughlin-penned piece on which Williams’ gently murmured inquiries (“Where are you going?/Where have you come from?”) enhance the intermittent mood of eerie stillness.

At the time, Melody Maker called the album’s vocal passages “almost indescribably awful,” while Bangs’ otherwise glowing Emergency! review described them as “preachy, pretentious vocalisms.” Discussing Lifetime’s use of vocals in a contemporary interview, Williams cited crooners like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine as inspirations but then seemed to deflect the matter altogether, saying, “I’m just experimenting.” Driving home his insistence on keeping his creative options open, he added, “Five years from now I may just walk on stage and saw a chair in half.”

The quip seemed to foreshadow the restlessness that would mark the rest of Williams’ career. Other Miles alums established themselves as star fusion bandleaders after splitting from Davis, riding the jazz-rock wave all the way to arenas and impressive commercial success during the ’70s: McLaughlin with the proto-tech-metal Mahavishnu Orchestra, the germs of which are clearly audible on Emergency! tracks like “Where” and “Spectrum”; Hancock with the ultra-funky Headhunters; Chick Corea with the proggy, virtuosic Return to Forever; and Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul with the colorful and eclectic Weather Report. Lifetime, meanwhile, never gained wide popularity, even with the addition of Cream’s Jack Bruce on bass and occasional vocals for Turn It Over, released in 1970. McLaughlin left after that album, and Young—whom Williams would later call “the heart of that original Lifetime band”—departed after 1971’s Ego. (The organist, too often overshadowed by Hancock, Corea, Zawinul, and Mahavishnu’s Jan Hammer as a pioneer of fusion keyboard, died in 1978 at age 37.) An entirely different lineup, dubbed New Lifetime, would craft another classic with 1975’s stylish, well-rounded Believe It, but the magnificent grit and spontaneity of Emergency! was mostly absent from later editions.

Williams would go on to play everything from driving hard rock alongside Ronnie Montrose to sparkling standards with the Great Jazz Trio. But in his sprawling discography, Emergency! stands out for its wired intensity and brash experimentation—and for the visionary way it unified the most vital sounds of its era. Electricity was in the air in 1969, but it took a musician of Williams’ conviction and imagination to harness it, to bring together two musical poles and allow them to spark rather than fizzle, to create something, in Herbie Hancock’s words, “louder than rock’n’roll,” but without sacrificing the dynamic range and microscopic conversational detail of jazz. 

Late in his life, the drummer often recalled the chilly reception Lifetime received in its day, mainly from jazz purists. “The band was vilified,” he said in the ’90s, looking back on the original Lifetime. “But the audiences loved it…. We were the hot band for rock people like Janis Joplin, but most jazz people didn’t want to know.” Still, decades on from Emergency! he stood firmly by the project. “It was something that had to be done at the time,” he said in 1996, the year before his death from a heart attack at age 51.

In another ’90s interview, he elaborated on why the original Lifetime was a necessary step. “The music was a reaction to what happened then, the turmoil of the ’60s,” he said. “The ’60s was about making a statement.” Then, distinguishing his, McLaughlin, and Young’s bold emergence from later iterations of fusion with typical brashness, he added, “The jazz rock I hear now … it’s in restaurants … it’s yuppie music.”

Share on Google Plus

About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
The Tony Williams Lifetime - Emergency! Music Album Reviews The Tony Williams Lifetime - Emergency! Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on January 15, 2023 Rating: 5


Post a Comment