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don't think the reality (or unreality) of it has settled in with any of us here just yet." The line comes from Bill Murphy, e-mailing from the New York offices of the Axiom label just a few days after the news broke of the death from a heart attack of the drummer Tony Williams. Williams died in a Los Angeles hospital on 2 3 February following what should have been a routine gallstone operation. There are rumours floating m the ether of the World Wide Web that his death could have been avoided had the LA medical team been more alert to the crltical nature of his condition, but until speculation solidifies into stone cold f a d lefs concentrate on some of the details of a l~ fethat was remarkableeven by jazz standards.
One of the last acts of Tony Williams's professional life, maybe the very last, was his participation in the second instalmentof a recording project called.Arcana, instigated by Bill Laswell, administered by Bill Murphy, which was directly inspired by the music Williams recorded in the late 60s and early 70s with guitarist John McLaughlinand organlst Larry Young (aka Khalid Yasin) as Lifetime. Williams, a prodigy who had performed with the two towering giants of jazz percussion,Art Blakey and Max Roach, while still a child, was thrust into a public arena at an improbably early age. Hejoined Miles Davis's group in 1963 aged 17, and via the murderous combination of a radical aesthetic sensibility and stunning technical abilities, almost angle-handedly altered the direction of the music of one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So Williams a valorised by jazz fans as a musician who turned notions of jazz-tlme on their head, galvanisingMiles Into yet another sustained period of creative activity. But for a later fan-musician like Bill Laswell, Lifetime prov~deda more provocativemodel for a music that united both personal interestsand the prevailing social and cultural imperativesinto one unruly package,applyingthe flexible, Improvisatory flavour of jazz to the bone-crushing intensity of hard rock.
Like Miles's contemporaneousshift towards an increasingly amorphous, electric music, Williams's work in Lifetime was regarded as a betrayal of his earlier pure jazz I~fe,a cynical attempt at commerc~alism.But the group's genesis, as revealed in the sleevenotes to a new anthology of the music Lifetime recorded for the
Polydor label, was more complex. Inevitably, Williams felt the need to define himself anew, away from the ultimately claustrophobicembrace of Miles's patronage, but Llfetime was also inspired by the lounge-jazz organ trios he had played in as a youth in Boston, as well as his desire to perform music that reflected his admiration for improvising rock groups such as Cream, The MC5 and The Jim1 Hendrix Experience,and that moved beyond the hermetlc world of jazz to mirror America's increasingly incendiary political climate.
"It was an emergency for me to leave Miles," he is quoted as sayng, explainingthe title of the first Lifetime album, Emergency "I wanted to play an emerging muslc that was my own." About the group's 1 9 7 0 Turn It Over album, he says. "Recording that album wasn't a pleasant experience. There was a lot going on soclally at the time and i t was a reaction to that There was a lot of tension and anxiety. The title was about turning over society. The album art was black, the liner notes were very hard to read - it was aggressively antagonistic."
As it transpired, Llfetlme came apart rapidly due to a combination of public and critical hostility and the conflicting personalitiesof the group members.Williams was so affected by the experience that he quit muslc altogether between 1973 and 75: when he returned it was t o play an inevitably less ambitious version of the music he had been making with Miles a decade earlier.
Unlike B~l lLaswell, I can't claim any strong feelings for Lifetime's music; in comparison, similar experiments be~ngconducted at the time by Miles, The Herbie Hancock Sextet, even Williams's Lifetime partner Larry Young on the long-forgotten Lawrence OfNewark record, seem more rich in future possibilities, more open-ended, less weighted down by self-conscious virtuosity and metal bombast. But I remain aware that the first Arcana project, a trlo made up of Williams, Laswell and guitarist Derek Bailey, was responsiblefor one of 1996's most sensational moments, The Last Wave, a record which finally seemed to vindrcate the music Williams had dreamed of making a quarter of a century earlier. Meanwhile, the second Arcana project has become a valediction, "a tribute to Tony", as Bill Murphy writes, "a document to show that his talents extend way beyond the limits of 'jazz' drumming.. . You'll hear i t soon enough." TONY HERRINGTON
4 The Wire