Tony Williams was a master musician who played with legendary musicians by the time he was 13. We’ve all heard stories about Williams hitting with Jackie McLean when he was 16, joining Miles Davis the follow year, then releasing his Blue Note debut, Life Time, at 18. To this day, Williams – who passed away in 1997 – is still regarded as highly regarded in long pantheon of drummers, regardless of genre. Williams’ sound had an aggressive, ahead-of-the-beat feel that many of Miles’ drummers personified and had a crisp ride-cymbal pattern that leaves conservatory students from New School, Berklee, Oberlin to North Texas breathless.

Essential Tony Williams albums


In honor of Tony Williams’ birthday, we compiled a short list of essential albums where he appears. While a traditional list would only recall albums that he released as a leader, we feel that the bigger picture that is Tony Williams also contains the records where he was a sideman.


Anthony Williams – Life Time

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I thought getting into the college of my choice was a pretty big deal back when I turned 18. But whatever accomplishments most of us achieved in the latter part of our teenage years pales in comparison to Tony Williams’ first album as a leader. Billed under Anthony Williams, Life Time features Sam Rivers (who Williams played with at 13), Bobby Hutcherson, as well as his Miles Davis quintet cohorts Herbie Hancock  and Ron Carter.


Herbie HancockEmpyrean Isles

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Go to a jam session and call out “Canteloupe Island.” I’m willing to bet my PS4 that the drummer on the bandstand will most likely do a backbeat. But check out Herbie’s Empyrean Isles where 17-year old Tony Williams played in and you’ll find that he – the original drummer in the song – doesn’t do anything to resemble a backbeat. Don’t even give me that “backbeat is a modern thing so Tony wouldn’t have known how to play it” excuse either. Take a listen to another version of “Cantaloupe Island” (like this) and notice how the groove is uneasy and uptight. Now, take a listen to the original and feel how Freddie Hubbard just floats over the nice and “simple” groove that Tony lays down during his solo. I rest my case.

Miles Davis – Live at The Plugged Nickel

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It’s difficult to talk about Tony Williams without mentioning Miles Davis. It’s almost impossible to talk about Miles and his Second Great Quintet without mentioning Live at The Plugged Nickel. The complete live album box set that was recorded in 1965 and released in 1995 features the Williams along with the rest of Miles’ Second Great Quintet at the height of their collective powers.

The Tony Williams Lifetime – Emergency! 

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Don’t think we didn’t hear you complaining about how there’s no mention of Tony Williams Lifetime here… because we did. Emergency! featured Larry Young on organ, Jack McLaughlin on guitar and of course Tony Williams on drums and vocals. Yes, Tony flexes his vocal chords on Emergency! on five of the tracks.

The New Tony Williams Lifetime – Believe It

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Remember how I said it’s hard to talk about Tony Williams without talking about Miles? Well it’s also hard talking about Tony Williams without mentioning Alan Holdsworth. The New Tony Williams Lifetime was formed in 1975 featuring Holdsworth, Tony Newton on bass, and keyboardist Alan Pasqua.

We’re almost certain that we missed your favorite Tony Williams record. But before you bash us on social media, be constructive and let us know what we missed and let us know why that particular album is special to you. This is a forum for music lovers and enthusiast and believe me when we say that your opinions do matter. Let us know what’s up in the comments section.

Words by DanMichael 


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