The Tony Williams Lifetime: Emergency!

The Songs:

  1. Emergency
  2. Beyond Games
  3. Where
  4. Vashkar
  5. Via the Spectrum Road
  6. Spectrum
  7. Sangria For Three
  8. Something Spiritual

The Personnel:

  • Tony Williams – drums, vocals
  • John McLaughlin – guitar
  • Larry Young – organ

Drum prodigy Tony Williams was 23 at the time of this debut recording in 1969 by his group Lifetime. He had previously released two albums for Blue Note, (including the 1964 album Life Time, from which the group got its name), and had just left the Miles Davis Quintet, along with rhythm section partners Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. Williams had been listening to many pop and rock acts and had a definite direction in mind when he decided to leave Miles and form his own group. He got the innovative post-bop organist Larry Young and a young British guitar virtuoso that bassist Dave Holland had recommended – John McLaughlin, both of whom recorded on Miles’ landmark album Bitches Brew later in 1969.

Influenced by the Beatles, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, (both McLaughlin and Young had jammed with Hendrix), the Haight-Asbury bands of San Francisco, and especially the superstar trio Cream, (whose bassist Jack Bruce would join Lifetime for their next album), the Tony Williams Lifetime was a powerhouse on stage. It featured the leader’s polyrhythmic propulsion (and unfortunately, his trippy singing on a few cuts), the dense Coltrane-inspired harmonic textures of Young’s Hammond organ (as well as bass lines from the organ pedals), along with McLaughlin’s unparalleled guitar technique, all played at a very high decibel level, creating a raw, explosive sound that was trailblazing at the time. Their first album, Emergency!, was an 8 song double album recorded in just two days. Most of the compositions were by Williams and McLaughlin, with the exception of Carla Bley’s fusion classic Vashkar and the closing cut, Something Spiritual by Dave Herman, which McLaughlin would later cover on his fine acoustic album My Goals Beyond.

Sadly, the group had signed with a smaller, up and coming label, Polydor, which invested little in the album’s production or promotion. The recording was rushed and poorly miked, resulting in distortion. Had this been recorded for Columbia, like Miles and subsequent fusion legends Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Weather Report, Return to Forever, and even McLaughlin’s own Mahavishnu Orchestra, Emergency! would have become a dominant force on the music scene at the time. Despite this, it has proven to be a classic and is remembered as the first true jazz-rock fusion album, predating Bitches Brew by a few months. Emergency! is still influential today, notably in the Lifetime tribute group ,Trio Beyond, led by Jack DeJohnette (who succeeded Williams in Miles’ group) with John Scofield and Larry Goldings. (Buy it here).

Suggested Reading:

Howard Mandel. Future Jazz.