Spectrum Road: The Role of a Lifetime

A certified supergroup featuring Vernon Reid, John Medeski, Jack Bruce and Cindy Blackman Santana

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John Medeski, Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman Santana, Jack Bruce: Spectrum Road, 2012
By Jimmy & Dena Katz
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Spectrum Road when they were called the Tony WIlliams Lifetime Tribute Band, Blue Note, NYC, 2011
By Greg Aiello
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Tony Williams, Larry Young & Jack Bruce, 1970

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There’s something to be said for that old trope about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, not least because it tends to shine a sympathetic light on the originator. The glow it casts on the imitators, however, can be harsh.

Don’t tell that to Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman Santana, John Medeski and Jack Bruce, the all-star cast that’s lined up to give drummer Tony Williams’ legacy the kind of boost they say it has deserved ever since his untimely death 15 years ago. The quartet calls itself Spectrum Road and focuses on performing the music of Lifetime, Williams’ trailblazing jazz-rock fusion band of the late 1960s and ’70s.

Williams is “the one who started jazz-rock,” says Blackman Santana, the drummer most associated with Williams’ musical inheritance. Her own band, Another Lifetime, has been covering Lifetime’s music since 2010. “In my opinion, we all need to thank him. We all need to say, ‘Tony, God bless you wherever you are. Thank you so much for the doors that you opened, for the music that you gave and still give us.’ We need to say that to him.”

A powerful bloc of the jazz community fell hard for jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s, but by the following decade the music had largely fallen from grace. It became increasingly slick, commercialized and gutless—a forebear to smooth and “contemporary” jazz—and was seen by the burgeoning Young Lions movement as a form of heresy in relation to the jazz tradition. Over the past two decades, though, certain inspired jazz-rock acts have been thoroughly canonized—Weather Report, Miles Davis’ early electric groups, Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra among them. The Tony Williams Lifetime isn’t included on that list nearly as often as it should be.

Reid believes Williams’ incipient form of fusion might be the purest. “There is something quite novel about this thing at the very beginning,” he says. “It’s dangerous; you shouldn’t go to that part of town to hear it; most people are avoiding it. It’s the same as hip-hop, you know? Who was gonna go to the community center in that neighborhood to hear that music played by those people?”

Spectrum Road’s self-titled album was released by the Palmetto label on June 5 (it could be called a debut, but the chances of a follow-up seem slim, given how busy each band member is), and the band hit the road soon after. As of this writing, it is scheduled to appear before thousands at Bonnaroo, Umbria Jazz and a handful of other festivals across the United States and Europe—the biggest celebration Tony Williams has received in years, perhaps since he left this earth.

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In 2001, Reid was on tour with Bruce’s band, the Cuicoland Express. Bruce had held the bass chair in Lifetime for a brief stint during the early 1970s, after his tenure alongside Eric Clapton in Cream, and Reid was eager for tales from the glory days. Bruce has stories in spades. “Tony and me, we did become really close friends,” he says. “We saw a UFO together, which was pretty amazing. And then we had that really bad crash in my Ferrari. I remember spinning through the air, looking at each other, thinking, ‘Well, that’s it. It’s been nice. Goodbye.’ … We were completely unharmed.”

Reid had long been troubled by the short shrift that Lifetime had received, during its heyday and in historical appraisals since. He and Bruce resolved to form a band to highlight Williams’ innovations. But it wasn’t until December of 2008 that the stars aligned and Reid’s dream lineup, with Blackman Santana and Medeski, came together for a tour of Japan. (More dates in U.S. jazz clubs followed in early 2011.) Blackman Santana’s remarkable proficiency and abiding love for Williams made her a shoo-in. Medeski, one-third of leading jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood, had collaborated intermittently with Reid since the 1990s.

Medeski considers Lifetime a definitive part of his jazz education, but, like his bandmates, laments that the group has gone underappreciated. “It’s a side of his career that’s not generally recognized in terms of how important and instrumental it was in changing the face of jazz and rock music,” he says. “The impetus [for starting Spectrum Road] was really to bring some attention to it.”

The album was recorded in 2011 when the four musicians found a brief moment of common free time. It consists of 10 tunes, eight of which were originally recorded by Williams, most under the Lifetime moniker (the band’s lineup was never constant), plus the traditional “An T-eilan Muileach” and the cooperative Spectrum Road original “Blues for Tillmon.”

The group’s aesthetic is harder-edged than Lifetime’s, and a bit less fine-tuned. Blackman Santana takes the model of “power drumming” that Williams championed to a more persistent extreme, and on organ and electric keyboard Medeski contributes a psycho-groove percussiveness that diverges from the modal concept of organist Larry Young, the original anchor of Lifetime. Reid also splits somewhat from John McLaughlin, Lifetime’s best-known guitarist, who combined his acoustic jazz training with the sonic provocation associated with Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to create a sort of frenzied, flower-child bebop. Reid’s debt to McLaughlin is clear—he has often named the Mahavishnu founder as a serious influence—but his constant swarm of notes and Technicolor distortion propel him to a position of prominence that no member of Lifetime ever claimed.

In the studio, “Vernon’s idea was not to play the tunes too much—to play the tunes once, and whatever we had, that was the take. That was basically what we did,” Blackman Santana notes. One result of this recording strategy is that Spectrum Road acts as a messenger more than a transformative body, playing arrangements that hew closely to Lifetime’s originals. A listen to their music can feel like digging up a slightly leaky time capsule.

An obvious object of comparison is Blackman Santana’s own band, Another Lifetime, which tends to privilege certain aspects of the Lifetime legacy—particularly its rockist fervor—and build new structures out of them. At the foundation of her versions is a set of heavy backbeats that give the arrangements a strong shape and a low center of gravity.

Then there’s Saudades, the stellar 2006 ECM release by Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and Larry Goldings, on which they investigate a range of music from throughout Williams’ career. This trio hones a distinctive dynamic, at once breezy and swaggering and piquant. When the group gets into Lifetime repertoire, it applies a postbop bite that simultaneously tugs the tunes back into the realm of straight-ahead jazz and pushes them forward into the 21st century.

Spectrum Road, though, aims primarily to meet Lifetime’s tunes on their own territory, hold them up as masterful achievements and expose them to the light. What we get is a group of four talented musicians whose individual improvisational styles are responsible for separating the band from its inspiration. In some forms of jazz, that’s a typical approach: Thousands of fine straight-ahead records have been made by musicians with little or no interest in altering the basic identities of the standards they play. But it’s rare in jazz-rock. Tunes like “Vuelta Abajo,” a driving track from Lifetime’s Turn It Over, and “Coming Back Home,” a twisting melody originally on The Joy of Flying, get added doses of adrenaline thanks to Blackman’s furious tom-tom work and Reid’s hyperbolic soloing, but they don’t chart devastatingly new territory.

The band derives its name from “Via the Spectrum Road,” the closing song on Lifetime’s album Emergency! The titular choice implies something about the road Williams meant to take us down—namely that it’s still worth traveling, and that maybe we haven’t reached the place it was supposed to lead us. Other groups (Robert Glasper Experiment, Vijay Iyer Trio, Christian Scott Quintet) are making arguments about the infusion of today’s popular radio into jazz tradition, but Spectrum Road aims to reassert a benighted form of fusion, perhaps so that it can take its rightful place and go on to influence other groups in the future.

“That music was so forward-thinking back then that it’s still forward-thinking now. Who plays as innovative as that? It’s still fresh and it still sounds new,” Blackman Santana says of Lifetime. “If you’re going to play innovative music, you’re going to have to figure out a way to think innovatively, because it doesn’t come naturally. And for me, I don’t only study what Tony plays, I study the way Tony thinks, and why he played something the way he played it and why he didn’t play something. … So for me, it’s not licks; it’s not just learning his triplets and bass drum tom-tom rolls and single strokes. It’s that too, but it’s not just that. Because that and those things are your tools to be able to put musical sentences and phrases together.”

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By the time Williams formed Lifetime in 1969, he was the most experienced and renowned 24-year-old in jazz drumming history. Born on Dec. 12, 1945, he came up under the tutelage of respected Boston drummer Alan Dawson (who went on to record with Jaki Byard and Dave Brubeck). As a teenager in the hard-bop era, Williams found himself tugged to the leftward fringe of Boston’s jazz scene and became an acolyte of saxophonist Sam Rivers. “Sam and I and [the Boston Improvisational Ensemble] got together and we’d play,” he recalled later on, during an interview with Jazz and Pop magazine. “They’d put graphs up on the wall and we’d play to that, and then they’d put numbers up and we’d play to that, and we’d play to a time clock, in all kinds of variations, different variations, and from that we went to other things.”

At 16, Williams moved to New York City and joined Jackie McLean’s band. The next year he recorded with McLean on Vertigo, the first of the more than a dozen albums for Blue Note Records that would feature Williams in the 1960s. Later that year, Miles Davis hired him into a group that would end up being dubbed Davis’ Second Great Quintet.

Williams recorded his first album as a leader, Life Time, at the age of 18. Featuring fellow Davis Quintet members Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, as well as Bobby Hutcherson and others, the album is essentially free jazz; it’s porous and diffuse—a collection of ways to cut holes in silences. The choice to split the words apart in the title implies something about life’s arrhythmic changes, as wide-open and unpredictable as any of the album’s music.

By 1968, when Williams left Davis’ Second Great Quintet, he had proven himself an artist who innovated by necessity: Presented with the state of the music, vision and virtuosity prevented him from tinkering within its present limits. With every new recording—as he re-appraised the role of the hi-hat, or introduced polyrhythms of unparalleled complexity in modern jazz—he seemed preternaturally disposed to inciting small revolutions.

With Lifetime, Williams took the organ trio format that had spent the ’60s calcifying into a crowd-pleasing trope and shot it through with a turbocharged hit of abandon. Bringing together McLaughlin and Young, Williams wrote tunes that thrived on the agitation of a post-Martin Luther King Jr. political reality and the artistic radicalism of psychedelia.

When jazz fans first heard that group’s debut, Emergency! , in 1969, it must have felt like intravenous caffeine. The album—along with Williams’ polemical interviews, in which he insisted that Jimi Hendrix, the MC5 and Cream impressed him as much as some of the old jazz masters—kicked open a door. Soon thereafter, Lower Manhattan was flooded with musicians espousing jazz as a countercultural, electrified art form. Many of them, it was easy to notice, either masked a lack of skill through bombastic distortion, or underplayed in order to bring their music closer to the rock that had overtaken the airwaves. In Lifetime, especially the group’s original form, Williams cannot credibly be said to have done either.

Bruce joined Lifetime in 1970, playing bass and singing on some material, and although he knew Williams he hadn’t even listened to Emergency! “The first time I heard Tony was on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! , and I found that really inspiring,” he says. “A lot of it made me think Tony was the future of jazz drumming. … To get to play with him was really exciting.”

Together, they recorded Turn It Over, the classic follow-up to Emergency! But within a year, the band had begun to dissolve: McLaughlin and Bruce were both replaced, and Lifetime would waver in and out of existence for the next seven years. Starting in the late ’70s, Williams began to commit himself to more straight-ahead jazz pursuits, recording V.S.O.P.: The Quintet with Hancock, Carter, Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard, and eventually starting a bop-rooted quintet under his own name.

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Blackman Santana remembers the first time she heard Williams: It was the mid-’70s and she was 15 years old. A friend told her that if she was going to play the drums, she ought to know about the best drummer on earth. “He sat me down in the basement and he put some music on and he walked out. And I just listened,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Wow this is incredible. This drummer’s articulate, inventive.’ It was freaking me out.” The album was ‘Four’ & More, by the Miles Davis Quintet. When her friend told her that Williams was only 18 when he recorded it, she was incredulous.

When she found Williams’ Lifetime work, though, Blackman Santana knew she’d found her absolute favorite music. “The organ trio was an extremely traditional model … and he made it sound like a science-fiction festival,” she says.

The supernatural is a motif in readings of Lifetime. Bruce describes organist Larry Young as “an outright genius, a sonic wizard.” He recalls that Young “played in my hometown, in Glasgow, and I saw him reduce an audience to tears by playing an organ solo. I’ve never seen anything remotely approaching it before or since. Just the power that that guy had, to me he was like Coltrane on the Hammond.”

John Medeski remembers that Emergency! was one of the first two jazz albums he heard, listening to his friend’s records at age 10. “I didn’t really have any idea what was going on. I had to listen to it over and over to begin to make sense of it,” he says. “He’s got so much control over every element, but it was never about that—it was always about the music. I think that influenced me always to be musical.”

All music is a fusion of some sort, a way to condense memory and emotion into narrative. But as ethnomusicologist Kevin Fellezs explains in his recently published essay, Emergency! Race and Genre in Tony Williams’s Lifetime, jazz-rock was more than that. It was conscientious transgression. “Lifetime used rock music to question and complicate the meanings jazz held as popular music as well as its emergence as art music,” Fellezs writes. Part of that challenge had racial underpinnings. Rock music had long been defined as an aspect of white counterculture. So within the historically African-American form of jazz, fusion became to many critics and casual observers a sort of great white hope—a place where rock gods along the lines of Clapton and Winwood might one day reign. Despite its seminal importance, Lifetime is remembered far less than the band McLaughlin later started, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

In his article, Fellezs points out that Williams would later criticize music writers for overvaluing his original guitarist’s contributions; he emphasized that Larry Young had actually been “the genius” in Lifetime. Fellezs goes a step further, asking, “Can fusion be heard as a strategy by Williams to make visible the racial assumptions behind genre categories?”

Reid sees Lifetime’s music exposing “the whole notion of an above-board society and an underground society—a bifurcated experience.” He adds, “In not just combining these elements but also writing his own songs and lyrics, [Williams] never made the concessions to the quote-unquote ‘marketplace.’ He wanted to do it on his own terms. And because he wanted to do it on his own terms, he became utterly unique.”

Originally published in July/August 2012

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