ALBUMS: Revisiting A Far-Out Tony Williams Classic

Legendary jazz drummer’s 1980 trio LP emulates Rush, Neu!

Tony Williams Gretsch Drums ad (Image: Gretsch)

For many jazz fans, Tony Williams is a familiar name, if not a towering figure.

Recruited at the tender age of 17 to play in Miles Davis’s legendary second quintet, he rose to even further prominence with his own early jazz fusion trio Lifetime. And throughout his career, Williams played with many other luminaries, including Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean and Public Image Ltd. While much of his work is extremely well-known, other albums have flown more under the radar.

Artist: Tony Williams

Album: Play Or Die

Label: M.I.G. Music GmbH 

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

This is where Hanover Germany-based label  M.I.G. Music GmbH comes in. In late July, they reissued the lost Tony Williams Trio album Play or Die. Initially released in 1980, the trio had only recently been formed to replace Williams’ last ensemble that had begun to fracture while touring Europe. The new trio consisted of Williams on drums of course, keyboardist Tom Grant and bassist/keyboardist Patrick O’Hearn. Tom Grant and Tony Williams had played together in the aforementioned doomed ensemble while O’Hearn had worked with Frank Zappa and would go on to help form the new wave band Missing Persons. 

Play or Die finds Williams, and jazz fusion for that matter, in an interesting transition period. Many of the classic records of the genre had already been made. Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and many others had already produced their most seminal works. Meanwhile, the technological advancements that had propelled both progressive rock and fusion were now finding their way into the mainstream. This record itself is dominated by the keyboard sounds of the era, but with Tony Williams behind the kit, the drumming can’t help but shine through.

Album opener, “The Big Man” starts the album off at a relaxed pace. O’Hearn and Grant both play keyboards and construct a simple groove which they take turns improvising over. The sound nods towards Weather Report in tone, but layers each instrument on top of the next like Herbie Hancock tended to do during that era. This allowed orchestration to take center stage rather than the solos. 

Tony Williams Play or Die, M.I.G. Music 1980/2022

“Beach Ball Tango” continues in the same vein, yet the way the synth melody meshes with the driving drum beat, one can’t help but think of the motorik rhythms coming from Neu! or early Kraftwerk. Midway through the trio really starts to find their fusion chops and the intensity ramps up. This culminates with an explosive drum solo from Williams. 

“Jam Tune” hints a bit at the new wave music that was emerging at the time, yet the middle section sounds like an outtake from Rush’s Moving Pictures. “Para Oriente” brings the group back closer to traditional fusion with its winding composition and bluesier style. Tony Williams brings the heat though, playing the most complex jazz licks with the fury of a rock drummer. O’Hearn also gets the opportunity to show off his chops with a tasteful bass solo. 

The record closes with “There Comes a Time” which features a strong lead vocal from Williams. While most will come to this record for the instrumental performances, this tune really does a great job illustrating the cross-genre pollination taking place throughout the album. R&B sits comfortably along side both prog and jazz rock and somehow becomes a coherent whole in the trio’s capable hands.

Play or Die is an unusual record and not where one should necessarily start with Tony Williams. Yet for the deep listener, there’s a lot to take in here. We find Williams and his cohorts working with both the past and what is soon to come. You can hear fusion here, but you can hear new wave as well. Play or Die though is it’s own thing and really doesn’t fall into any one category. And in some ways this is true of Tony as well.

If you come to this record looking for a particular version of Williams as a player, you might be disappointed. But if you come to it with an open mind, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.




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Todd Manning

Todd Manning is a recovering musician who mostly writes about Metal and Jazz various places around the internet, including Burning Ambulance, Cvlt Nation and No Clean singing. He lives in Indianapolis, IN.

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