Duets of the Gods: Tony Williams + Cecil Taylor

Clash...of the titans.

Tony Williams Lifetime
The Joy of Flying
Sony : 1978

TW, drums; Cecil Taylor, piano.

Here’s a deep cut that not many people know about. Tony Williams’ eclectic Joy of Flying is an R&B inflected album filled with collaborations with the likes of Jan Hammer, George Benson, Tom Scott, and even rock guitarist Ronnie Montrose. To be honest, it’s not a particularly memorable set. But tucked away at the end is a total anomaly: A fiery duet with Cecil Taylor that’s worth the price of admission, and then some.

In Howard Mandel’s book Future Jazz, Greg Tate is interviewed by the author and cites “Morgan’s Motion” as one of the all-time great jazz performances. It’s prime Cecil, his essence boiled down to a tightly coiled eight minutes. By this point, Tony Williams’ salad days were already behind him, but the track shows that he could still summon his best work when challenged.

We won’t go so far as to say his performance here is definitively better than, say, Sunny Murray, Ronald Shannon Jackson, or Tony Oxley — but Williams’ explosive drumming frames Taylor’s music in an entirely different way than any of his esteemed peers.  Like his best work with Miles Davis, Williams’ performance is both sensitive and aggressive, not afraid to get in Cecil’s face, to give as good as he gets. The results generate fireworks and lyricism.

“Morgan’s Motion” doesn’t devolve into pugilism, but it does recall the conventional wisdom that ballet dancers are as tough as boxers. It’s a shame these two never repeated the encounter. “Morgan’s Motion” is one hell of a dance.

What other gems are hidden in the Tony Williams discography?

Discussion19 Comments Category Cecil Taylor, Tony Williams Tags , , , , , , , , , ,

19 Responses to Duets of the Gods: Tony Williams + Cecil Taylor

  1. This is interesting. From what I understand, and before he went with Miles, Tony subbed for Cyrille in Cecil’s band a few times.

  2. Cool, never heard this one!

    From Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff the last track is a minimalist Tony Williams showcase “Nomadic,” essentially drums with wisps of piano/horns now and then. Great track!

    I’m also a huge fan of TW on Four and More (the fast side of the Complete Concert 1964) with George Coleman, esp “Seven Steps to Heaven.” It’s blazing! Maybe not a hidden gem, though?

  3. First thing that I thought of, of comparable weirdness (albeit less cohesion), was the first Arcana album. Williams’s playing on that record sounds like neither the propulsive, cutting prodigy of the earlier Blue Note albums or the Miles band nor the blustery force behind Lifetime. What it is is extremely fragmented–like a cut-up series of blast blast beats–virtuosic but really disconnected, nothing like any sort of idiomatic free drumming I can think of. As it is, that Arcana trio operated in a very fulfilling Material/Last Exit sort of territory,Bill Laswell playing the role of timekeeper, Derek Bailey the “melody,” and Williams running a very schizophrenic sort of interference.

    The Cecil/Tony duet here sounds to me like a far more integrated combination of Williams’s early 60’s and Lifetime styles than that found on the first Arcana album–reminds me a bit of Andrew Cyrille in its punctuated melodicism.

    It might be a little unfair to throw Murray into this group, because he’s not a choppy drummer by any means; I get the sense guys like Cyrille, Oxley, or–yeah–Williams play with Taylor as melodic equals, whereas someone like Murray (or maybe even Jerome Cooper) will only match energy and rhythmic density–sounding more like an “accompanist” of sorts, but really just a different way of doing things. On yet another end of the spectrum, you have pure timekeepers like Higgins or Dennis Charles, who do manage to interact melodically but will never dispense with the beat (which is a fundamental premise of playing in either the Oxley/Cyrille “mode” or like Murray). Just the way I see it…

  4. like scott i am a huge of TW the ones which impressed much in this one are those drums with horns i was hearing that more than 10 times very very good i am addicted to it


  5. Amazing. I am definitely a TW fan, and haven’t taken the collecting of his recordings to an unreasonable level, but I’m surprised I hadn’t known about this one. Tony and Cecil, exploring the unknown? Pretty cool.

    Anyone who doesn’t yet have TW’s two Blue Note albums, “Life Time” and “Spring”, should buy them immediately. TW jamming with Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter, with the redoubtable Gary Peacock on bass on both, makes for really enjoyable listening, and TW’s composing skills are fairly compelling as well. Not necessarily hidden gems, though. I agree with Scott that TW is great with Moncur, and I personally like TW’s work on Moncur’s “Evolution” even better. Finally, while this doesn’t qualify as “out”, TW further cemented his ability as a composer with his 80s Blue Note albums, all of which are available on his Mosaic Select set. The soloing by his bandmembers is inspired, and you can tell TW was proud of this new focus. Again, not a hidden gem, but a good purchase for TW fans.

  6. Hey, I thought of a TW moment that may qualify as a hidden gem. I have long been a huge fan of Sam Rivers, and was elated a few years back when the Columbia Legacy group re-issued Miles Davis’ “Miles in Tokyo”, the only official recording that documents Rivers short stint in that band. It is fascinating, and even a little bit funny, to hear how Rivers’ “out” tendencies combined with the constant propulsion of TW really lights a fire under Miles.

  7. Thanks for the info, Clifford. It helps explain how this track might have come about and why there’s such a great rapport between the two of them.

  8. Great comment, Karl. Need to revisit that Arcana album. You’ve got me intrigued.

    We were talking about Murray less in terms of style and more generally in terms of the overall quality of his dates with Cecil and the music they made together. But your more specific analysis is well taken.

  9. Life Time and Spring are both fascinating, but haven’t heard them in ages. Way back when, I found there was something more intellectually compelling about them than emotionally involving. Wonder if that’s still the case?

    That Rivers date with Miles is a real lost treasure! I’ve heard that Miles was not pleased by the pressures Rivers exerted on the band and sacked him accordingly. Not that anyone could argue with the results of replacing him with Wayne. But still interesting to imagine in what directions the combo of TW and Rivers would’ve propelled Miles…

  10. this is very nice i like clash of the titans its awsome


  11. Speaking of Sam Rivers, one of my favorite TW performances ever is the title track on Rivers’ first (released) album, “Fuchsia Swing Song.” It’s a classic tension-and-release opening with TW’s trademark skittering ride cymbal—just one of the classic statements of 1960s jazz. I also love TW’s super-bombastic trio albums with Tyner and Hancock in the late 70s.

    There are lots of TW clips on YouTube, and it’s astonishing to watch him perform, especially with Miles in the early days. His hands are just a blur.

  12. Folks have mentioned the Life Time album above, but I wanted to single out the seriously unusual track “Barb’s Song to the Wizard,” a moody piano-bass duet on which Williams doesn’t even play. Definitely worth a spin: http://www.amazon.com/Barbs-Wizard-Gelder-Digital-Remaster/dp/B000SZIUJ0

  13. I’d like to mention the Charles Lloyd album “Of Course, Of Course” which features Tony along with Ron Carter and Gabor Szabo. It’s really interesting to hear the intersection of the differing styles of the players.

  14. Great track. As for hidden TW gems, I’d put, right near the top, “Watch It” from Herbie Hancock’s trio disc (Ron Carter being the third). From ’77 (or ’78), right in the middle of all of their pop-influenced stuff, and to my ears, that track is probably the best mix of a rock beat with a jazz feel – amazing HH solo on it too, but it’s TW that drives the thing home.

    Another would be the first 4 or 5 minutes to “Eye Of The Hurricane” from disc 1 of VSOP’s Live Under The Sky 2 disc set from ’79 – the visceral playing is just unreal, practically blowing Freddie off the stage – but not in disruptive way. Despite Freddie’s stated dislike for this stuff, I think TW pushed him to some of his best playing.

  15. Greg Tate does not identify Morgan’s Motion as one of the alltime great jazz performances in Future Jazz. Because Greg Tate did not write Future Jazz, I, Howard Mandel, did. Greg Tate wrote an introduction to my book Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz — and that’s where I, not Tate, identify Morgan’s Motion as one of the alltime great jazz performances. I admire Greg, but he didn’t write my books. Can you correct that, just in case anyone else ever refers to it? Please? Thanks HM

  16. Mr. Mandel! Glad you could find your way here! So what you’re saying is…you are not Greg Tate? Got it.

    Happy to make the correction for the historical record.

  17. Sorry for the confusion here. In my notes, I had that you had interviewed Greg in the book as part of a discussion about the future of jazz. Greg mentioned a number of notable recordings he highly valued, including “Morgan’s Motion.” Or am I thinking of another tome altogether?

  18. A few Tony Williams gems, from his discography as a leader:
    “Love Song”, from “Spring”, Blue Note, recorded 1965

    “Mom and Dad”, from “Ego”, Polydor, 1971

    “Mystic Knights Of The Sea”, from “The Old Bum’s Rush, Polydor, 1973

    “Neptune: Creatures Of Conscience”, from “The Story Of Neptune”, Blue Note, 1992

    “Neptune: Fear Not”, from “The Story Of Neptune”, Blue Note, 1992

    “Infant Wilderness” from “Wilderness”, Ark 21, 1996

    “You And The Night And The Music” from “Young At Heart”, Columbia, 1998


  19. Thanks for the suggestions, Vinnie, and for stopping by. Always great to get the drummer’s take. (As with Hank, above.)

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