Tony Williams is just one of numerous jazz drummers who have not only played with great musicality but have also composed, in styles ranging from unaccompanied solo pieces for the trap set and jazz pieces to extended works for orchestra.
Others traps players and composers include Louie Bellson, Max Roach, Denzil Best, Ralph Peterson and Ndugu Chancler. Among the pieces written by drummers are Roach's "Drum Conversation," Best's "Move" and his collaboration with Thelonious Monk, "Bemsha Swing," Bellson's "Skin Deep" and Williams' "Sister Cheryl."
Williams has been recording his original tunes since his debut album, 1964's "Lifetime" (Blue Note). But when he was unable to come up with a tune for his 1979 CBS LP "The Joy of Flying," the Boston native--whose innovations in rhythm sparked Miles Davis' classic 1960s quintets and were instrumental in changing the way modern drummers played--knew things had to change.
"I didn't have time to write anything for that album and I was disappointed in myself," said Williams, 44, whose quintet plays tonight through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood. "I didn't have the facility to put something together quickly that was quality. It frustrated me and I decided I would not continue like that, that I wanted to raise the level of my ability."
In 1980, Williams, who lives in San Anselmo in the Bay Area, began a private course of classical study with UC Berkeley professor Robert Greenberg that ran intermittently until 1987. "I had studied elementary counterpoint on my own, and with Greenberg I continued with such areas as double counterpoint and fugues," he said at his New York City hotel, where he was appearing recently at the Blue Note club.
As a result of his studies, Williams has acquired the facility he lacked a decade ago. "I'm able to put notes on paper quickly, analyze and manipulate the material better," said the man who has composed all of the modern, mainstream songs for his four latest Blue Note albums, including the most recent, "Native Heart." "I can get an idea and then develop it into something more, expand it. I can look at other's people's material and understand why it sounds the way it sounds, which helps me learn."
The teacher-student exchange excited Williams. "I like learning. Taking a lesson in, having it graded, finding out what I did right, and wrong, I'd come away from that feeling happy," he said, after a draw on his ever-present cigar.
The drummer who composes at the keyboard, Williams recently completed his first expanded work, Rituals for String Quartet, Piano, Drums and Cymbals. "It's in the classic string-quartet form with four sections," Williams said. "I started it in February, and if I had been able to work on it full-time--I'm currently touring about half the year--I would have finished it in about five months." The 20-minute piece was given its premiere Friday by the Kronos Quartet, pianist Herbie Hancock and the composer at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
Williams finds himself constantly getting ideas that he distills into songs to be played by his long-standing quintet. The members are Bill Pierce, saxes, Wallace Roney, trumpet, Mulgrew Miller, piano and Ira Coleman, bass. "I always have stuff, ideas, pieces of paper with music on them, some from years ago, and I work from that," said the drummer.
The time that Williams is on the road with the band is often employed to shape and sharpen these compositions, which run the gamut from hard-driving quicksilver works to easy-motoring numbers with a \o7 bossa\f7 -rock flair. "For 'Native Heart,' we played the tunes a lot--at sound checks, at rehearsals--before we went into the studios," he said. "Plus I did a lot of work on the tunes myself. I'd see how a tune sounds, then take it and change it. That's a luxury that I afford myself because of the writing skills that I have gained."
Since he concocts everything in his group's library, the group's voice is really Williams' own. "I don't want it to sound like other bands, and since I know why other bands sound the way they do, it's easy for me to make the band sound unique," he said. "I am going for things that I haven't heard before, and yet I want in certain ways to have the band sound traditional. I am not trying to do what people would think would be 'new' with a capital N. I don't put that kind of pressure on myself. I'm looking more for quality."
The drummer is adamant about playing only his compositions. "I get a charge out of playing my original material," he said. "Maybe it's out of my own insecurity or fear, but I want to play music I want to play and that I want people to hear me play. This is the Tony Williams quintet that plays the music of Tony Williams. I'm proud of that, you bet. I hope the hard work shows."