Tony Williams was a wunderkind of 16 when he first came up playing drums with Miles Davis. In the ensuing years he became one of the most respected and influential jazz drummers in the world, equally at home playing be-bop, fusion, or funk. He went on to play with Herbie Hancock’s classic “V.S.O.P” groups and eventually led his own bands, and in a world in which he was considered a peer of older venerated drummers, it was easy to forget he was still a young guy who could bring the sensibilities of another generation to the set.
When punk bands such as The Sex Pistols emerged around 1976, Tony took notice. He mused that if the music scene produced and celebrated such hyphenated, hybrid forms as country-rock or soul-funk, why not jazz-punk? And whatever that might come to mean, Tony was just the guy who could pull it off.
In 1977, he brought together a band of veteran rockers with both new-wave and jazz leanings and called them “The Barbarians.” He was already signed to Columbia Records, who green-lighted the recording project to see where it would go.
They were doing most of the sessions in L.A., and I shot this flash photo in a back alley near the downtown studio one night at about two in the morning., capturing Tony in a transcendent, beatific mood, surrounded by his bad-boy alter egos in the band.
Several weeks later, we were back in San Francisco working on a more elaborate studio shot involving a gorgeous model and a black-satin jacket I’d had custom-embroidered with a cool “gang” logo I’d designed with Tony for the group. In the midst of an intimate photographic moment, the kitchen phone rang. It was Tony’s manager who asked to talk with Tony for a minute.
They were on the phone for about twenty minutes, and when Tony came back from the kitchen he quietly said we should probably wrap things up. His manager had told him that Columbia had been listening to the rough studio mixes, had no clue how to position or market the music they were hearing, and were killing the project.
Tony took it in stride, and eventually used some of the musical direction and material (plus an illustrated adaptation of our “Barbarian” logo) on a subsequent album called “Joy of Flying” that used an eclectic assortment of players ranging from jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Cecil Taylor to rockers Ronnie Montrose and Brian Auger.
But to this day, nobody’s ever heard Tony’s “Barbarian” project. Officially, at least, it never happened.
Here's a picture of the band:
...And here's the first tune entitled "My Imagination'.
Sorry about the lack of visuals. Check out the flammed 16ths in the chorus. he's still kicking our butts, from the great beyond! He always plays for the tune but also puts in little signatures like that. As great as an improviser Tony was, he also was great at composing great drum parts. Here's the link to download the album here.
A couple of more comments. It's interesting that Tony killed the project because the record label didn't know how to market it. Boy, that's from a bygone era. Nowadays Tony would be putting it out him self or might have given it away after the label gave it the thumbs down. it also shows how the powers that be were always just interested in business rather than putting out interesting sounds. Finally it shows that Tony was always interested in exploring new things and challenging the listening public's perception of him. It may not rank with Tony's best work but that's not the point anyway. The point is that Tony Williams did it all. He was a Jazz visionary, a rock star, a stadium metal god, and a punk rocker, sometimes all at once!
P.S. Happy birthday to Jack DeJohnette. 69 years young today! May you inspire us all for a long time to come!