Tony Williams is everybody's drummer.
Since he leapt to prominence as the 27-year-old prodigy with Miles Davis, whose quintet he vitalized from 1963-69, Williams has covered every musical base, from free jazz/rock (in his original Lifetime group with John McLaughlin) to improvisational forays that defied categorization.
Last June, he made a return to basics, organizing the straight-ahead jazz quintet that opens tonight for a three-day stint at the Palace Court.
"I don't feel I've played like this in about 15 years," he said the other day, returning from a record session that will preserve the group on a Blue Note album.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 29, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 8 Column 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Drummer Tony Williams came to prominence as a 17-year-old prodigy with Miles Davis. Due to a typographical error in Calendar Friday, he was mistakenly called a 27-year-old prodigy.
The nature of the band can be deduced from the fact that three of the four sidemen are alumni of the hard bop conservatory known as Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. They are Wallace Roney on trumpet, Billy Pierce on tenor and soprano sax, and the formidable pianist Mulgrew Miller. Completing the unit is the 19-year-old bassist Charnett Moffett, who played with Wynton Marsalis when he was 16.
"I didn't hear any of these guys before we rehearsed together," Williams said. "I just told people--friends, my agent--the kind of men I wanted. It's the first time I've ever had a group like this, and a chance to write music for it."
Williams has enjoyed substantial composer credits over the years, but mainly in the areas of pop, rock and the avant-garde. Now, he says, he will be able to use "the tools I've acquired by studying composition, which I've been doing for seven years, with a teacher from UC Berkeley. This is a good way to get back into the mainstream of music."
Williams may well be the most adaptable of all contemporary jazz drummers. Though capable of infusing a performance with tremendous rock energy, he is no less adroit at instilling a jazz work with a delicate sense of color and shading.
His move into unhyphenated jazz might seem risky, given the success he has enjoyed elsewhere. But he shrugs off these accomplishments: "I wouldn't say I had all that much success. I guess my biggest record, in terms of sales, was 'The Joy of Flying' for Columbia, which came out in 1979. But the music was all by other people; I didn't have a single song on it, and essentially this was why I began studying composition, because I didn't want that to happen, again."
Williams had not had a regular group since 1980 prior to organizing the present combo. Before and since that time, he toured extensively with Herbie Hancock, often in the all-star VSOP unit that was, in effect, a reconstitution of the old Miles Davis group (Wayne Shorter, Hancock, Ron Carter) with Freddie Hubbard replacing Davis.
"But I've been doing all kinds of other things: Recorded with Yoko Ono--I was on her "Starpeace' album that came out early this year--and with Johnny Rotten. Soon, I'll have something out with Iggy Pop. These jobs are neither more nor less demanding than jazz gigs--they just require a different approach. I'm glad I'm called to do those things, because I enjoy them. For me, it's all music."
Living in Marin County for the last nine years, Williams has devoted considerable time during the past year to preparing the music for his jazz quintet. "We just recorded a piece of mine called 'Soweto Nights.' Some of the others are 'The Citadel,' 'The Slump,' and 'Civilization,' which will probably be the title number of the album.
The opportunity to play constantly again, with his own band, is particularly appealing now that he has some of his own works to contribute. "This is what I need, because I enjoy hearing my music performed and I still like playing the drums.
"We'll probably keep this group together indefinitely. We're going to Japan next year, Europe, and South America. We're almost at the end of our American tour, and I've enjoyed every minute of it."