Tony Williams – Play Or Die – M.I.G.

by | Jan 29, 2023 | Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews, SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

A lesser known jazz pioneer gets a re-mastered vinyl upgrade.

Tony Williams – Play Or Die – P.S. Productions PS1001 (1980))/M.I.G. M1214-1(20222) stereo vinyl 39:46 ****:

(Tony Williams – drums, percussion, vocals; Tom Grant – keyboards; Patrick O’Hearn – electric bass)

As jazz entered the late 1960’s, it was searching for a wider audience and commercial viability. The popularity of r & b, funk, and rock was dominating the music scene. Many jazz artists maintained a purist approach to their identities. However a wave of bona fide legends incorporated these popular elements into a new genre…fusion. Lead by none other than Miles Davis, electric instrumentation changed the landscape. Many of his former bandmates including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin “plugged in” and formed their own bands. One of these musicians was drummer Tony Williams. His first band (Tony Williams Lifetime) was a power trio with McLaughlin and Larry Young. Williams, considered among the greatest jazz drummers in history, began his solo career in 1964, and recorded until his untimely death in 1997.

M.I.G. has released a re-mastered vinyl of Williams’ 1980 album, Play Or Die. His new trio features Tom Grant (keyboards) and Patrick O’Hearn (bass). Side One kicks off with a steady funk groove, anchored by Williams’ polyrhythmic drumming. The aural landscape is developed by Grant pairing a repeat vamp with expansive synthesized keyboards. It has tight structure, but flows seamlessly with moments of intensity. “Beach Ball Tango” begins with a compelling solo by Williams on tom toms. At the 1:13 mark, the trio unite for a festive, jaunty transition. As Williams and O’Hearn keep the rocking tempo sustained, Grant intermingles electronic melody exploration and texture. An electric piano solo articulates a Latin-infused vibe. This type of arrangement is quintessential fusion, with hypnotic repetition and Williams unbridled fury and meticulous execution leading the way.

“Jam Tune” integrates many of these dynamics with an underlying funkiness and some idiosyncratic (cowbell?) percussion. Williams, O’Hearn and Grant (who cuts loose on synthesizer) are very cohesive, and the trio maintains the integrity of the arrangement. There is a modified tempo break, but it always weaves back into the interplay…a classic hybrid of structure and improvisation. Returning to a Latin-infused feel, “Para Oriente” is built up from a jazzy electric piano, skipping bass (with a solo) with moments of volume modulation. The 3:06 mark ushers in a finger-snapping soul jazz that is accessible and fluid. It reverts to the syncopated, pulse aesthetics, with O’Hearn’s bass work front and center. In what feels like a more traditional jazz translation, “There Comes A Time” has a breezy atmospheric resonance and Williams adds vocals (lead/tracked backup). Grant’s punctuated electric piano fits this number. Of course, the adroit drum fills create a forceful counterpoint.

When Play Or Die was released in 1980, only 500 vinyl pressings were available. This album is a vital part of jazz fusion lore. It provides a well-deserved opportunity for music aficionados to appreciate this album, especially on vinyl.

Play or Die TrackList:

Side 1: The Big Man; Beach Ball Tango
Side 2: Jam Tune; Para Oriente; There Comes A Time.  

—Robbie Gerson

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Album Cover for Tony Williams Play or Die

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