In 1963, when a 17-year old Tony Williams was hired to drum with the Miles Davis Quintet, he was not only the youngest member of the group but also its only rock fan. Even so, when he put together the Tony Williams Lifetime in 1968, with guitarist John McLaughlin, the jazz world wasn’t sure what to think.
Although many were put off by the band’s combination of free-flowing improvisation and rock-style attack, a few immediately grasped the genius of Williams’s breakthrough. Among them was Davis, who hired McLaughlin to play on the sessions that became In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, albums that pulled jazz fusion into the mainstream. Lifetime, by contrast, was not so lucky. Even with the addition of former Cream bassist Jack Bruce in 1970, the band toiled in obscurity.
Hindsight, though, has a way of changing perspective, and 44 years after its start, the Lifetime legacy looms large. Although Williams died in 1997, Cindy Blackman Santana – the wife of Carlos Santana and a former student of Williams’s – rekindled the spark in 2010 with an album of Lifetime covers called Another Lifetime. Later that same year, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid – who played on the album – formed Spectrum Road, a Lifetime-inspired band featuring Blackman, Bruce and keyboardist John Medeski, of Medeski Martin & Wood.
The Globe spoke to Reid from his home in New York.
So you’re in the John McLaughlin seat now.
Oh, yes. [laughs] I guess that’s the hot seat at the moment.
How did that come about?
I had been working with Jack Bruce in his band, the Cuicoland Express, in the early 2000s. I started asking him about his life, asking about what it was like to play in Cream, and I asked him about Tony Williams. Tony had just recently passed, and he had a lot of affection for Tony. We talked about it for a while, and that was the beginning of the thought, in my mind, about maybe bringing some people together to play that music.
Spectrum Road is a bit of a super group, and the four of you are well known in rock circles as well as in jazz. Is it a bit weird to be playing Lifetime’s music when the four of you are much better known than Williams’s band was?
Jack said that they always had problems with Lifetime. Like, for instance, they would go to gigs and the marquee would have the name of the band completely wrong. Tony was a really underground, obscure figure, but he really started – certainly from the jazz side – jazz/rock fusion.
But those collisions between rock and jazz have been kind of treated unfairly. I mean, Tony was always acknowledged as a phenomenal drummer, but at the same time he got a lot of brickbats for singing. The odd thing is, a lot of what he did predates a lot of alternative rock.
I always hoped that Tony would do another electric project, because he was not just a tremendous jazz drummer, he was a tremendous rock drummer. He didn’t play at it – he actually played it, from the inside out. He had this awesome rock feel.
Which, I think, is what a lot of jazz fans resented about Lifetime.
Oh, yeah. It was very, very powerful, and there were no limits to how far he was willing to go to express what he felt in the moment. When I was having the first conversations with Jack about Tony, jazz and improvised music was in a very, very conservative kind of place. There was an anti-electric stance that was pretty much the common thing. One of the reasons I thought of John Medeski for this band is that he was part of a counter-movement, or a resurgence of electric jazz, with Medeski Martin & Wood. They started out playing CBGBs, which was a club I knew very well.
Although most of what’s on Spectrum Road’s album are Lifetime tunes, not everything is.
Right. This is less a tribute and more an ‘influenced by’ band, because if it were a tribute band, we would be meticulous about recreating the exact sound of the Lifetime thing, and that’s not what we do. It’s really our take. So when we started up, we didn’t do set lists. We would go and we would play, and then things would just happen. It’s much more open-ended.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Spectrum Road performs June 25 at the Vogue Theatre, Vancouver; June 27 at the Sound Academy, Toronto; and June 28 at Théâtre Maisonneuve, Montreal.