Tony Williams was still a teen-ager when he helped redefine the way jazz drums would be played. His elegant cymbal storms paved the way for Jack DeJohnette a bit later and for Cindy Blackman in another jazz generation entirely. Most of the places Williams played as a wunderkind with one of the great Miles Davis Quintets couldn't even serve him alcohol between sets (some couldn't serve alcohol to anyone while he was on). Not many years later, a servable Tony Williams lead a fabled aggregation called the Tony Williams Lifetime, one of the earliest and best of jazz-rock fusion groups.
Like all of the rest of jazz, he went back to the future in the '80s. To much acclaim, he returned to active jazz life and straight ahead music as a leader, not just an all-too-infrequent sideman. At 43, he is already venerable. In fact, he may well turn out to be the Art Blakey of his jazz generation -- at once, one of the greatest drummers in the history of jazz and a leader of one of the music's fieriest and most consistently accomplished young groups. While Tony Williams may not be the unofficial jazz university that Blakey has been for the past three decades (Blakey's most illustrious alumnus of the '80s being Wynton Marsalis), he has become something else that Blakey never really was -- a much-performed jazz composer.
Tony Williams will always be a major jazz occasion. He comes to the Tralfamadore Jazz Institute at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. next Thursday. -- Jeff Simon