IN 1969 - the year of the Moonwalk, Woodstock, and the miracle Mets - music could still, in the quaint but somehow fitting parlance of the day, "blow your mind". For it was the music, not merely its packaging and technology, that was new. And nobody's music was more mind-blowing or barrier-breaking - or newer - than Lifetime's. With an instrumentation that had long been associated with mundanely funky organ trios, drummer Tony Williams, guitarist John McLaughlin, and organist Larry Young stunningly accomplished what a few other bands (notably the Free Spirits, with Larry Coryell on guitar, flutist Jeremy Steig's Jeremy and the Satyrs, and vibist Gary Burton's groups featuring Coryell) had rather timidly attempted before them - they truly electrified jazz. And though jazz's primer mover, Miles Davis, had used electric instruments and funk and rock rhythms as far back as 1967 (with Tony Williams on drums), Lifetime was the first to join jazz's spontaneity with rock's jolting energy.
The original Lifetime was together less than two years, during which time they created a rapid-fire, mood-shifting, profoundly ear-splitting, sometimes silly, altogether unique sound. Each member was a risk taking virtuoso; Williams and Young had already expanded the vocabularies of their instruments, while McLaughlin clearly aspired to do the same.
Beyond three galvanic but occasionally uneven and technically flawed records, the legacy of the original Lifetime was a new musical hybrid. Apres Lifetime I, le deluge of fusion, with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, the idiom's first supergroup.
At 23, and looking younger, the frighteningly gifted Tony Williams generated the power plant that was Lifetime, setting the pace and establishing the direction in much the way he had for five years with Miles Davis.
Small, wiry, and handsome, he trashed his compact kit with heavy parade band sticks, thus making his small drums sound considerably larger. Driving the beat with his left foot (the hi-hat), he mixed single-roll fusillades with whip-lashing cymbal crashes while unleashing depth charges on his undersized bass drum. His feet danced on the pedals in heel-toe/heel-toe rhythm as he flayed his fast crash cymbal between the off-beats.
In an interview with fellow guitarist Robert Fripp in the July 1982 issue of Musician, John McLaughlin recalled in awe his former leader's blurring cross-rhythms and their effect on his own playing: "Tony plays with the time like I've never heard anybody play with the time. You have to learn to think like he does, you have to learn his conception of time because it's impeccable...and very stimulating. Because one of the things I learned from Tony was about breathing, breathing in time. And Miles is a master of that way of playing."
McLaughlin, then 27, wielded (if memory serves), a well-seasoned, psychedelically repainted Fender Jaguar. The burly 29-year-old Young (aka Khalid Yasin), sat imperiously behind his keyboard, sometimes sustaining white noise or piercing, Sun Ra-like chords in the canine register (devices he now and again overworked). Young's washes of colors and propulsive bass lines were a spur to McLaughlin, who culminated his long, singing, midnight-lightning runs (Tal Farlow meets Jimi Hendrix) by bending, then snapping, a blue note's spine.
Less staggering were the leader's vocals. Wispy, off-pitch, and not a little affected - all hail Bob Dylan for "democratizing" pop singing - Tony's little-boy-lost renderings of his or McLaughlin's corny lyrics (which were not entirely devoid of a certain impudent charm) was populism at its most ill-advised. Happily, the vocalizing was quickly done and Lifetime was into another furious, extended Jam.

A CHILD prodigy, Williams was born in Chicago (Dec. 12, 1945) and raised in Boston, the son of a club date tenor saxophonist. At age nine, Tony began studying percussion with the estimable Alan Dawson, by the time he was 13 he was a frequent sitter-in at local clubs, especially with organ trios like the one led by Johnny "Hammond" Smith. In a 1979 down beat interview, Williams told writer Lee Underwood: "Playing with those organ trios is where I originally got the organ-guitar-drums format idea for Lifetime."
As a 15-year-old he broadened his musical horizons by gigging regularly in the Boston area with master multi-reedman Sam Rivers. A year later, Williams was in the house rhythm section of the Boston club Connelly's, where he backed, among other visiting headliners, Jackie McLean, the acid-toned hard-bop alto saxophonist. Amazed by the teenager's musical prowess, McLean brought Williams to New York in December, 1962.
Williams played in McLean's group that supplied the music for The Connection; after the off-Broadway show closed, the altoist started putting together a new working band. In February, 1963, Williams made his first recordings. The Jackie McLean LP these sessions yielded, Vertigo, did not reach American vinyl until 17 years later, in Blue Note's short-lived "Classic" series. McLean's One Step Beyond had long been considered William's debut album.
In May, Williams ascended to the most prestigious of drum thrones when he joined the Miles Davis quintet. During their five years together, Miles' tensible rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Williams stretched supersonic 4/4 time with breathtaking ease. Like his storied predecessor Philly Joe Jones, Williams kept the quintet's engine in high gear - and Miles in the driver's seat.
The link between Elvin Jones' polyrhythmic superimpositions and Sonny Murray's eruptively free style, Williams came up with an alternative system of rhythmic organization. Instead of maintaining a steady ching-ching-a-ching on his ride cymbal (which, with its absence of overring, was instantly identifiable), he crisply varied the beat with flair and fire.
His bass drum work was equally innovative, in that he popularized a 14" x 18" model, the smallest available; more important, instead of feavily muffling the bass drum (which, given its size, would have rendered it nearly inaudible), he tuned it to sound as resonant as his tom-toms. Williams played the bass drum so adroitly that he soounded as if he had a third hand.
During his tenure with Miles, Tony was also part of Blue Note's burgeoning stable of avant-boppers and free players, recording with such bellwethers as Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers and Grachan Moncur. He also cut two wide-ranging, experimental albums under his own name, Life Time (1964) and Spring (1965), which were among Blue Note's earliest forays into freer jazz.
As the '60s drew to a close, the "rock revolution" was in full cry; suddenly rock 'n' roll instrumentalists, led by Jimi Hendrix, were being taken seriously. Having spent more than five years with Miles, Tony Williams was ready to front his own group - and rock figured prominently in his plans.
Asked in a 1972 interview if Hendrix had influenced his decision to go electric, Williams told me: "Subconsciosly it was Hendrix, but counsciously it was the Beatles. I was one of the first of the people I know to dig them. Back in '64 people thought you were jive if you liked them but I dug their songs, their singing, and their crazy energy. I'd wanted to eventually go that way with other bands. You know, it's just knowing what you want and finding the best way to get it."
What Williams wanted was a guitarist he had never laid his eyes on - John McLaughlin. In an interview with the German writer Joachim Berendt, which appears in The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to Fusion (1982; Lawrence Hill and Co., Inc.), McLaughlin recalled how he joined Lifetime: "In November, 1968, I got a call from (bassist) Dave Holland, (who) said, 'Tony Williams wants to talk to you.' Tony said he would like to form a band, and he would like to have me. Jack DeJohnette had played him a tape he had done with me a few months before, while he was in London with Bill Evans. So I said: 'When you are ready, just call me.'
"In early 1969 he called again. So I left the first week of February for New York. Two days later I was in the studio with Miles (for the trumpeter's first fusion date, In a Silent Way ... afterwards Miles asked me to join his group. Imagine - I had to turn down Miles! Because it was more important for me to go with Tony Williams. I had compositions. And I realized, with Tony I would have more of a chance to play them than with Miles."
In fact, McLaughlin was the ideal man for the job. Born in a small town in Yorkshire, England (Jan. 4, 1942), McLaughlin was encouraged by his mother, an amateur violinist, to begin playing the piano at age nine. Two years later, he took up the guitar after receiving one as a gift from his brother. McLaughlin's earliest influences were such vital bluesmen as Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, but it wasn't long before he was investigating flamenco and jazz - Django Reinhardt, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and John Coltrane were among his early favorites.
Moving to London in the early '60s, McLaughlin became part of the more jazz-inspired wing of the British blues/R & B revival. He was a member of Georgie Fame's Blue Flames, the Graham Bond Organization (with future rock demigods Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker), and Brian Auger's Trinity. He also played on recording sessions for Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, which McLaughlin found so onerous that he bolted for Germany to make free music with multi-instrumentalist Gunther Hampel. Back in England, McLaughlin met avant-garde reedman John Surman, with whom he recorded Extrapolation (Dave Holland was the bassist) shortly before setting out for America.
Like his Lifetime colleagues, the late Larry Young had also been a leader. For nearly a decade he'd made records under his own name, first for Prestige, followed by a series of challenging LPs for Blue Note. Born in Newark (Oct. 7, 1940), Young studies piano as a child before switching to organ at 14, when his father opened a hometown club with an organ on its bandstand.
The instrument was at the time enjoying great popularity, particularly in the urban black ghettos. Records by Jimmy Smith and a host of blues preachers (Brother Jack McDuff, Baby Face Willette, Johnny "Hammond" Smith) were jukebox staples, and organ trios, with either guitar or tenor saxophone plus drums, flourished. Young, however, had little use for the grits 'n' gravy school. If Jimmy Smith was the Charlie Parker of the Hammond, Young was, as Jack McDuff acknowledged, its Coltrane. Wrote Michael Cuscuna, "Larry had a sense for voicings and a touch that had previously been thought only possible on the piano. Yet he was a total organist ... He literally redefined the organ without denying an iota of its identity."
Interestingly, just two weeks before Lifetime's first recording sessions, Young jammed in the Studio with Jimi Hendrix; eleven years later, "Young/Hendrix" made it onto Nine to the Universe, one of several posthumous Hendrix LPs on Reprise.

ON MAY 26, 1969, Lifetime began work on their debut album. Two days later, they completed what would be the milestone double-set, Emergency!, reissued here in its entirety. For all its unharnessed power, Emergency! was badly botched, as McLaughlin lamented to Berendt in their recent conversation: "it was one of the shocks of my life when we made that first record...and when they mixed it and the sound was terrible...I realized they had no respect for the music and the musicians."
Yet the poor balance and rampant distortion actually enhanced the trio's uniqueness. The inadvertent wall of distorted sound added a level of raw intensity that punk bands from the Stooges to the Sex Pistols only dreamed of. (As if to winkingly comment on the dearth of production values, all of Emergency! cover art was well out-of-focus, and an inside liner close-up bathed the leader in a sickly green half-light.)
Emergency! was issued in the early fall to glowing reviews. If the four sides did not abound with indelible melodies, the energy was relentless. After tearing through the thematic material (all by Williams and/or McLaughlin - the latter used the pseudonym "A. Hall" - except for one piece each by Carla Bley and Dave Herman), Lifetime sprung into their patented overdrive.
The title cut (with its savage coda - listen closely to someone, presumably the leader, whooping joyously in the left channel), and "Spectrum" (McLaughlin had previously given it a much milder reading on Extrapolation) were high-voltage improvisations. Best of all was an explosive recasting of Carla Bley's "Vashkar", which totally departed from Paul Bley's off-center, mysterioso 1963 original. Considering the theme and more than doubling the tempo, Lifetime lifted off into a space where the music wasn't about jazz or rock, but about pure electronics. Only the dauntless Hendrix had travelled here - and he had done so alone.
Numbers that started at a less rampaging clip, like the three stabs at pop ("Where?", "Beyond Games", and "Via the Spectrum Road", plus "Sangria for Three", with its brief, eerie falsetto wailing), were inevitably kicked into double-time by the urgent CHIK-CHIK-CHIK-CHIK of Williams' hi-hats. It should not go unnoticed that the closest thing to a drum solo over these four sides is "Something Spiritual" by Dave Herman, a 6/8 vamp over which Tony's razor-sharp phrasing and controlled juggling of the time recall his artistry on Miles Davis' "Nefertiti".
But while Emergency! was snapped up by open-eared young jazz fans and some progressive rock enthusiasts, Lifetime's opening salvo failed to catch on in "Woodstock nation", where Polydor Records hoped it would reach. As fall became winter, Lifetime was booked into jazz clubs and rock halls alike. Althought many rock fans were generally positive about the group (notwithstanding the boos at Boston's Tea Party when Lifetime opened for the Who), it's fair to say that most rockers couldn't quite follow Lifetime's direction.
For better or worse, the band was ahead of its time, which posed problems for their record company and management. As Tony Williams himself mused in a 1970 down beat interview with Pat Cox: "... the rock musicians don't really consider us rock. You know, we're not trying to be rock. They think we're trying to play up to them, and we're not. And I'm not trying to get away from jazz because I want to make money ... I've got all these things coming down on me."
In February, 1970, Lifetime returned to the studio to begin cutting Turn It Over. Though the sound was cleaner (there was even a joking reference to its "mellowness" in the album credits), the tunes were considerably shorter and the repertoire and performances did not, for the most part, approach Emergency!'s peaks. The significant exception was "To Whom It May Concern - Them amd Us", a droning Chick Corea blues lick in charging 6/8 (shades of Mingus' "Better Git It In Your Soul") whose two parts dovetailed. Lifetime burned as brightly as they ever did here with McLaughlin's lower register statement of the theme suggesting a giant undertow.
A hard-swinging "Big Nick", the Larry Young feature that often closed live sets, is also included (though a bit more stretching out would have been nice); as is McLaughlin's "A Famous Blues", with vocals by both the composer (the "trippy" sotto voce spoken parts) and the leader. When Lifetime performed this selection live in the early days, McLaughlin's recitation concerned being "lost in North Vietnam". By the time of this reading, however, McLaughlin's priorities had shifted to more spiritual matters, witnessed by such lines as, "See in the purple orchard of yesterday/the light of today". Williams' line was earthier: "Take me home with you," he implored. "Let's go to your house." (Sexual chess games were a favorite Lifetime pastime; e.g., Emergency!'s "Via the Spectrum Road", wherein a club owner is cuckolded, and "Beyond Games".)
In the spring of 1970, Lifetime enlisted the services of bassist-vocalist Jack Bruce, McLaughlin's old mate from the Graham Bond Organization. Bruce, of course, had been one-third of Cream, rock's first "supergroup", which had flamed out the year before.
The addition of Bruce was presumably seen as a means of attracting rock fans, as well as a way to give Lifetime a heavier bottom. The move did not succeed on either count. Though an adventuresome bassist by rock standards, Bruce's busy style was of little help to Lifetime. And, for whatever reason, he never lifted his famous tenor voice in song on Turn It Over, althought he did contribute an uncredited vocal on the pretentious "Two Worlds", which was included in the third Lifetime LP (and first sans McLaughlin), Ego. The quartet performs "Vuelta Abajo" (recorded in July, 1970), a ponderous, amelodic number redolent of Hendrix's "Purple Haze". (During this period Bruce also took part, as did McLaughlin, in Carla Bley's and Paul Haines' unprecedented Escalator Over the Hill.)

IN late 1970, not long after the death of Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin's star was steadily on the rise. His playing had grown dramatically during his Lifetime stint, thanks in no small part to his being pushed to the limit every night by Tony Williams juggernaut. His confidence further buuoyed by encouragement from his idol Miles Davis to form his own band, McLaughlin left Lifetime in early '71, amid some rumblings of strained egos. Thus, the book was closed on the Tony Williams Lifetime, editions 1 and 1A.
McLaughlin had recently embraced the teachings of guru Sri Chinmoy, who gave him the devotional name "Mahavishnu" - ergo, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which within a year was filling rock venues, indoors and out, around the world.
Better drilled and even louder than Lifetime, but not nearly as jarring, the five-piece Orchestra drew heavily upon the blissfully droning timbres and complex meters of Indian music and the thunderous dynamics of rock. The unisons of McLaughlin and electric violinist Jerry Goodman soared, and drummer Billy Cobham, whose techniques surpassed Williams (though his overall musicality did not), was a powerhouse. But above all, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's leader was the charismatic frontman that Lifetime had lacked.
Whereas McLaughlin sold records by the truckload during the '70s, Larry Young's attempts to crossover - two ersatz funk jobs for Arista - failed dismally. In November, 1977, Young made an enthralling duo album for Muse with drummer/pianist/composer Joe Chambers called Double Exposure. It was to be his final recording; four months later, Young died, at age 38.
The Tony Williams Lifetime carried on in several increasingly rockish incarnations, none of which clicked for either Polydor or Columbia. After the demise of Lifetime V in 1977, Williams was a member of both V.S.O.P. (a reunion of four-fifths of the Miles Davis quintet of the mid-'60s, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet) and the Great Jazz Trio (with Hank Jones and Ron Carter).
He also recorded and/or gigged with Sonny Rollins, Weather Report, Michael Mantler, Terumasa Hino, McCoy Tyner, and Wynton Marsalis - and John McLaughlin. His last LP for Columbia, 1979's The Joy of Flying, included an eagerly awaited but ultimately disappointing duet with Cecil Taylor.
Following a period of bandleading inactivity in the early eighties, during which he expanded his musical horizons by studying composition at the University of California-Berkeley with professor Robert Stine and Dr. Robert Greenberg, Williams re-emerged in 1985. Since then he has fronted a roaring, modern hard-bop quintet, featuring such youbger lions as trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Bill Pierce, and pianist Mulgrew Miller. While this band has recorded a series of worthy albums, none has had the same shattering impact as Williams first LP. But that was several Lifetimes ago - in 1969 - when the New York Mets ruled, and the Tony Williams Lifetime sounded like no other band in the world. Before or since.

                                                by James Isaacs
Album Info:

Turn It Over