Dripping with sweat after a tumultuous set recently at New York City’s Village Vanguard, Tony Williams offered an insight into his approach to jazz drumming: “I believe there are vitamins in volume,” he said.
The best way to appreciate Native Heart, an album of acoustic jazz intended to make your ears ring, is to boost the decibel level on your receiver and let the music roll over you in waves. Amid the surging power of Williams’s declamatory tunes and eruptive playing, you will find yourself awash in whirling eddies of rhythm and melodic counterthemes.
Williams was still in his teens when he lent an effervescence to Miles Davis’s mid-’60s modal musings with his delicate and splashy cymbal work. A few years later, wielding parade sticks and bashing on an oversize drum kit, he helped launch the jazz-rock revolution with his high-voltage band, Lifetime. Shifting grooves yet again a decade ago, Williams immersed himself in classical composition studies. He has since forsaken rock to work with a more traditional jazz ensemble but retained his powerhouse style of drumming.
Williams’s bandsmen, saxophonist Bill Pierce, trumpeter Wallace Roney and pianist Mulgrew Miller, bring a melodic sensibility to Native Heart, while bassists Ira Coleman and Bob Hurst take turns giving the tunes a swinging bottom. The mood of the album ranges from the balefulness of the title track to the buoyancy of “Juicy Fruit” and the freneticism of “Two Worlds.” Most of the songs have the punch of hard bop, with harmonic resonances that echo the drummer’s early work with Miles. But the complexities of the rhythms keep the music from sounding nostalgic. Through ever changing tempos, Williams maintains a hypnotic pulse while unleashing an expressionistic pattern of sound with rolling crescendos, crashing cymbals and offbeat accents.
In jazz, drummers have traditionally been expected to play a supportive role as timekeepers while horn players and other melodists have hogged center stage. When it comes to rhythmic precision, Williams has few peers. But he is also mindful of his musical forebears in Africa, who relied upon the drums to summon ancestral spirits and to send messages over long distances. Williams is not content to simply keep a beat. As the title suggests, he sees the drums as a means to express the stirrings of the heart. (Blue Note)