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?

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