If you’re a fan of fusion—not the flaccid new-age drivel playing over the decrepit sound system of a declining department store, but the merging of stellar jazz musicianship and unpredictability with rocking tones and instrumentation—then you’re probably no stranger to legendary drummer Tony Williams and his hugely influential band. The Tony Williams Lifetime was arguably the first, full-on jazz-rock fusion band, and in its many incarnations it was the launching pad for some of jazz-rocks biggest giants. It was the band from which jazz god Miles Davis—who, less than a decade before, had hired Williams to man the skins in his band at age 17—somewhat controversially, plucked the young John McLaughlin, who would later go on to form the mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was also the band from which Allan Holdsworth, following his stint with the Soft Machine, would influence an entire generation of guitarists with his startlingly fluid chops. (Perhaps most notable was his influence on Eddie Van Halen, whose phrasing, note choices, and tone owe hugely to Holdsworth’s playing on Lifetime songs like the classic “Red Alert” from 1975’s Believe It.)
Of the many players influenced by Tony Williams, Jack Bruce and Vernon Reid aren’t necessarily best known for their fusion work. Bruce practically wrote the book on power-trio rock bass playing with his groundbreaking work in Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. And Reid found fame as the ferocious fret-burner who, along with his bandmates in Living Colour, was at the forefront of the late-’80s funk-metal vanguard. However, as their discographies prove, both players are avowed fans of the aforementioned fusion icons. Which is why they recently joined forces with former Lenny Kravitz drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana and Hammond B3 guru John Medeski to pay their respects to Williams and the Lifetime as Spectrum Road.
On their eponymously titled debut, the four virtuosos revisit Lifetime’s surging, stylistically expansive material, digging into deep, free-flowing improvisations as well as poetic vocal tunes. Most of the Lifetime songs on Spectrum Road (with the exception of Believe It’s “Wild Life”) are drawn from Lifetime’s earlier albums, including 1969’s Emergency! and 1970’s Turn It Over. The latter of these two fusion classics featured none other than Bruce on bass and vocals.
While Bruce is most often remembered as the voice and brawn powering hits like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room,” the fact is that just a couple years after his short tenure in Cream, he was whisked into Lifetime when Williams dropped by the Fillmore East to check out Bruce’s band. Jazz, and rock, would never be the same.
Jack, how did you first connect with
Tony Williams, and what attracted you
to this genre of music that was emerging
in the late ’60s?
Jack Bruce: Well, I had first heard Tony playing on [jazz saxophonist] Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!. When I listened to that record, I just fell in love with his style, because he completely turned the drums around. He wouldn’t necessarily play the snare drum part on the snare drum—he might play it on the bass drum or something else altogether.
One night I was playing with my own band at the Fillmore East. There were a bunch of people down at the East that night, including Hendrix, and John McLaughlin had brought Tony along with him. Tony said to me, “Do you want to join my band?” I said “Sure, okay.” And I did! [laughs].
Bruce with Spectrum Road live at the legendary Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California, on February 5, 2011. Photo by Jerome Brunet
You’ve said your experience with the
Tony Williams Lifetime was “the musical
time of my life.”
Bruce: It was exactly like when Cream was just beginning and getting really hot—that kind of magic, with all the aspiration and the psychedelic thing happening in the best possible way. The same thing applied to Lifetime, because it seemed like that was happening all over again for me. In fact, it was probably on another level from Cream.
What sort of influence would you say
Lifetime had on music?
Bruce: I think the band probably had quite an influence on Miles and various others, but I don’t think the Lifetime had as much of an impact as it might have had. It was more on individuals who managed to hear the band live or on their records. It was not long lasting enough, but the people who were fortunate enough to hear that band—or in my case, play with them—certainly changed their attitude to music in many ways.
Vernon Reid: I would say that the impact of Lifetime is discreetly massive. Jazz-rock, from the jazz side, actually started with the emergence of Lifetime. Yes, you already had improvising rock bands—from King Crimson to the Soft Machine—and you could even say that Hendrix’s approach was very improvisational. You could argue that the psychedelic era had created a space for fusion to happen. And somewhere in there, a young Tony Williams created his own expression of this collision of those sounds.
From the standpoint of the guitar, the Lifetime’s influence has been tremendous. After Santana and Hendrix, McLaughlin’s playing with Lifetime certainly changed my life. The roots of his genius are inside the Lifetime album Emergency! By the time you get to Miles’ Live-Evil and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and eventually Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame, there’s a remarkable transformation.
Although Holdsworth had played with the Soft Machine, his big impact on the world of guitar came with Lifetime’s Believe It, which almost overnight became the musician’s-musician record. On Believe It, Holdsworth simultaneously inspired a generation and flipped them completely out! Holdsworth was as original as McLaughlin, but completely different. And while people often focus on Holdsworth’s chops, to me he’s just incredibly lyrical with this great facility and legato feel.
Lifetime included other great guitarists like Ted Dunbar and Ronnie Montrose. There was even a version of Lifetime that never recorded. It featured Ryo Kawasaki as the guitarist. So a big part of Tony Williams’ legacy is that he loved guitar and clearly had an ear for rock-inflected guitar. That certainly all had a giant impact on me. In many ways, this is the music that forged who I am.