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Tony Williams: Play or Die (M.I.G.)

A review of the drummer's album originally released in 1980

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Tony Williams: Play or Die (M.I.G.)
The cover of Play or Die by Tony Williams

Play or Die is a macabre title for this reissue by Tony Williams (1945-1997), the incredible drummer who rose to fame as a teenager with Miles Davis before forming his celebrated Lifetime band, continuing lengthy solo and session careers, then succumbing to a heart attack after gall bladder surgery at age 51. Recorded in Germany in 1980, Play or Die features a 34-year-old Williams still in his prime, yet searching for direction as his European touring band dissolved. Its lone remaining member, keyboardist Tom Grant, suggested bassist/keyboardist Patrick O’Hearn—between stints with Frank Zappa and future New Wave band Missing Persons—to complete a trio recording that initially saw only 500 vinyl pressings in Germany.

Ever inventive and propulsive, Williams was nonetheless at a crossroads after the disappointing mid-1970s dissolution of his second edition of Lifetime. Though equally stunning within traditional jazz, he’d become lionized as a fusion icon via his work with that band. His five compositions here are highly synthesized, lacking the interaction with the guitarists (John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth) who helped define many of his career peaks. The opening “The Big Man” features impressive solos and punctuation by Grant and Williams, yet within the six-plus-minute foundation of a synth drone; “Beach Ball Tango” is largely an 11-minute showcase for the drummer’s militaristic flurries and fondness for surf music.

Things improve on “Jam Tune,” featuring Grant’s piano stabs and a bridge highlighted by Williams’ off-beat ride cymbal; “Para Oriente,” with Grant’s Fender Rhodes and O’Hearn’s warped fretless bass solo; and “There Comes a Time,” a shimmering 5/8-time ballad on which the leader capably sings as well as effortlessly swings. But tellingly, the remainder of Williams’ life and career, influenced by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the “Young Lions” movement, would largely return to acoustic jazz.

Learn more about Play or Die on Amazon.

Essential Tony Williams Albums