Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tony Williams - 1969 [2011] "Emergency!"

Emergency! is the debut double album by American jazz fusion group The Tony Williams Lifetime. It was released in 1969 and was one of the first significant jazz fusion recordings. The album has commonly been regarded as a pioneering, influential, and original album in the jazz, rock, and fusion genres.

On the album, the band experiments with a wide range of genres including funk, psychedelic rock, hard bop, blues and free jazz. Williams can also be heard singing on the record on the songs "Beyond Games", "Where", and "Via the Spectrum Road". It was during John McLaughlin's tenure with the band that Williams introduced the young guitarist to Miles Davis, who was conducting his own fusion explorations at the time. This introduction led to McLaughlin playing on some of Davis's most acclaimed and influential albums, including In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. Davis had a particular influence on the band, as Williams had played in his Second Great Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock, and Larry Young would go on to record on Bitches Brew.

Emergency! was originally released in 1969 by Polydor Records and Polygram Records. In a contemporary review for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau called the album a "stunner" and hailed Williams as "probably the best drummer in the world". The record was later reissued on CD by Verve Records and Polygram in 1997.

According to J. D. Considine in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (1992), jazz fusion started on Emergency! where McLaughlin was first given the chance to combine jazz and rock. In a retrospective review for AllMusic, Leo Stanley said that it "shattered the boundaries between jazz and rock" with its "dense, adventurous, unpredictable soundscapes". Dennis Polkow of the Chicago Tribune wrote that in spite of the album's questionable sound quality, the music has an "energy and spirit" that has never been surpassed in fusion.

Tony Williams' Emergency was one of the first and most influential albums in late-'60s fusion, a double-LP set that shattered the boundaries between jazz and rock. Working with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young, Williams pushed into new territory, creating dense, adventurous, unpredictable soundscapes. With Emergency, Tony Williams helped create the foundation of the style and sound of fusion. It's a seminal release.

Emergency! was not only one of the first fusion records, but also probably the defining record that introduced American audiences—and most notably Miles Davis—to John McLaughlin. Williams himself, at the age of twenty-four, was already a veteran of groups with Sam Rivers, Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, and of course Davis' second great quintet. His innovative style has put him in the same realm as Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones. But the glue of the record wasn't just Williams, it was the explosive combination of the Lifetime band with McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. Their expansive sound within the confines of a trio is pure genius. The sound is huge and the jams are rooted deeply in rock styles.

The hard touch Williams employed on the Davis quintet records rules throughout Emergency!. The Blakey vibe is definitely here, but Williams switches styles and tempo in mid-track. He can be tossing some hard bop, then flash in some Ginger Baker chops (Baker was the blazingly original and influential drummer of Cream). This practice helped to give the record a more rock-oriented sound than much of the fusion that followed. But McLaughlin's playing is some of his finest. McLaughlin's chops showcase the eclectic tastes that would be a building block in fusion and rock-jazz. His uncanny technique for knowing just how to lead not only his solos, but also the composition itself is genius.

In many ways this record works as a companion piece to Davis' In a Silent Way and Filles de Kilimanjaro. As well, Larry Young's organ playing differs greatly from the jazz organists of the era who played primarily soul- and funk-jazz. Young's style grooves closer to the sounds that were being used primarily in rock bands of the era. In this sense, the organ adds an almost spacey and trippy effect to the sound. But Young used jazz keyboard influences and textures for his solos. This mixture makes for a huge- sounding and eclectic record.

Emergency! is a sprawling epic that came out as a double album upon its release in 1969. Unlike some doubles of the era that were bloated affairs that sank under their own weight, its size worked as an advantage, not a deterrent. The compositions rarely reach over ten minutes, making the record more conventional in a rock sense. But most importantly the tracks themselves open up completely to rock music in its most primal forms. Sure, Bitches Brew is cited for this innovation, but Emergency! predates it and is every bit as solid, without using horns.

In fact, the combination of just guitar and organ gives this recording a more authentic rock esthetic. It seems quite obvious that Williams was a true fan of the genre and used it to its greatest effect. Take the jam "Where," which pulsates throughout, building and dropping, utilizing rock foundations and jazz chord structures. The album definitely sounds much like San Fran jam bands of the era who were using jazz templates for their spacey improvs.

Is it Jazz or is it Rock? This was undoubtedly the question on the mind of every listener when first venturing into the content of Emergency!. The music is centered around the soloistic spontaneity of Jazz music, but features absolutely no wind instruments which were once considered essential instruments of the genre. In fact, during the time of its release, the album was virtually a pariah. The Jazz community completely repudiated The Tony Williams Lifetime altogether, as no one considered the group was doing anything revolutionary. But the album's heretical nature served to be a catalyst that would inspire the musical styles of several future Jazz Fusion acts.

As we descend into "Emergency", Tony Williams erupts out of silence and deploys a bombastic and eccentrically complex drumming style. Larry Young and John McLaughlin then ornament his atypical percussive rhythms with their respective organ and guitar arrangements. John McLaughlin soon asserts the spotlight as he indulges into his own exploratory solos, while the other instruments provide a rambunctious backing section for his performances. This being highly unorthodox at the time as electric guitars were never featured as dominant instruments in Jazz, but there lies the charismatic allure of the album. It is the electrifying synergy of John McLaughlin and Tony Williams that makes Emergency! such an impetuous release of adrenaline. Exhibiting the energetic musicianship that would later be defined as the inveterate nature of Jazz Fusion. "Something Special" and "Via The Spectrum Road" show the group embracing the conventions of rock music so intimately, that it is arguable as to whether the Jazz influences are even present. For example, "Via The Spectrum Road", displays a variety of musical characteristics that are synonymous with rock music. There is a coalescence of electric and acoustic guitar playing that express a very subtle blues tone. The song, as well as several others in the album, even feature prominent singing. The orchestral arrangements of "Via The Spectrum Road" are also furnished to compliment Tony Williams' singing, while almost completely ignoring the instrumental vitality and improvised spontaneity that is the core essence of Jazz.

The nature of Emergency! is merely a reflection of its time. Rock music was dominating the sound of the late 1960's, and artists were expanding the conventions of traditional musical orchestration and exploring new dimensions as Psychedelia grew in prominence. Segregation had long been abolished in the United States, while promoting equality between racial classes. New ideologies were flowing throughout the western world, as hedonistic lifestyles and eastern philosophies were replacing the Christian fundamentals that once embodied the social norms and morals of society. In other words, it was a time to experiment and leave old traditions behind. An attitude that would influence artists to direct their music into more abstract routes. "Where" alludes the embrace of new philosophies, and serves as a prime example of the group's innovative style. It posses many different compositional movements, from exuding psychedelic ambiences to explosive musicianship. John McLaughlin and Larry Young also deploy some elaborate effects on their respective instruments that add a sense of cosmic dissonance to the music. This is one of the first Jazz albums to incorporate electrical atmospheric textures, along with Miles Davis' In A Silent Way which was released earlier that year.

But Emergency! tends to shine its brightest when the group devises a frantic style of playing, and that is what makes "Vashkar" and "Spectrum" such impeccable performances. From Tony Williams' dynamic and sensuously bombarding percussive rhythms to John McLaughlin's exhilarating solos. both songs are moments of suspense filled with convoluted and utterly maniacal instrumentation. This is the album that turned the Jazz world upside down, and established a whole new approach to the genre. Emergency! is the template that all future Jazz Fusion acts would soon follow, mirroring its hyperactive and assiduous display of musicianship. This album is perhaps the most free we will see John McLaughlin perform until his work with The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Because of the album's prominent rock leanings, his guitar playing is much more spirited and aggressive, providing a truly captivating performance on his part. I cannot express how truly ingenious this album is. It is a performance that no mere words can even begin to do it justice, it has to be experienced to honestly fathom its imaginative and deranged brilliance.

Recorded at Olmsted Sound Studios, New York City May 26 & 28, 1969

CD Esoteric Recordings ECLEC 2256 (2011, Europe) Remastered.

Tracks Listing:

1. Emergency (9:35)
2. Beyond Games (8:17)
3. Where (12:10)
4. Vashkar (4:59)
5. Via The Spectrum Road (7:50)
6. Spectrum (9:52)
7. Sangria For Three (13:08)
8. Something Spiritual (5:38)

Total time 71:29

Line-up / Musicians:

- Tony Williams/ drums, vocals (2,3,5)
- John McLaughlin / electric & acoustic guitars
- Larry Young / organ