In the first years of Tony Williams's meteoric rise, people were so blown away by his revolutionary reconfiguration of jazz drumming that they often failed to recognize the profound musical intellect that informed his playing. As a teenager working first with Jackie McLean and then, more notably, with Miles Davis, he introduced techniques that made him (along with Elvin Jones) one of the two most influential drummers of his era. Forty-five years removed from his first recordings, you can hear clear traces of his ride cymbal work and rhythmic phrases from drummers like Bill Stewart and Eric Harland.
Spring goes a long way toward filling out a bigger picture. In the Davis quintet, Tony was working for jazz's most notable bandleader. Although his playing shaped much of what the group did, Davis was very clearly in charge. On Spring, Williams pilots the project. He writes the tunes and directs their overall dynamics, making hair-trigger revisions in motion and volume. His ears are remarkable, and his reaction time to whatever he hears is astonishing.
Williams presents an interesting roster for the date. In Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers, he juxtaposes tenor saxophonists whose ratio of cerebral/visceral improvisation is nearly inverted: Shorter is an intellectual player with muscle, Rivers a brawny player with a brain. In pianist Herbie Hancock, the drummer had a familiar bandmate (they were both in the Davis Quintet) who shared his quicksilver sensibilities. And, with bassist Gary Peacock, he'd gone with the freest thinking of the top call mainstream bassists. "Extras," taken without piano, throws Shorter directly into the cauldron. There's a brief call-and-response twin tenor theme, and then the saxophonist takes off, alternating between rapid-fire patterns and two-note ascending chromatic patterns, shaded closely by Williams's brushes. The drummer switches to sticks during Peacock's probing solo, returning to brushes just before Rivers's eerie turn. Starting at a crawl with foghorn tones, the tenor quickly accelerates until he is virtually swirling, and ends his solo in virtuosic a capella.
I'm not sure if the drum solo "Echos" is supposed to mirror "Extras," but in many ways, it sounds as if Williams begins the piece by playing what he played on the previous track backward. He settles into forward motion soon enough, using explosive figures highlighted by repeated figures between the bass drum and snare rims. "From Before" starts with the same two note melody that Albert Ayler played on "Universal Indians," but expands during Hancock's solo into a series of intervalic experiments, as the pianist uses major and minor seconds, augmented fourths, and tone clusters in an open-ended manner. Williams and Peacock cover him with great acuity. The alternately 6/8 and 4/4 "Love Song" is likely the most conventional track on the album. Initially reminiscent of a somewhat faster version of Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," Rivers gradually opens up the throttle. Hancock comes in for his best solo of the date, playing with great sophistication and fluidity. Wayne Shorter closes the program on "Tee," fluctuating between a repeated motif and chromatics, systematically moving further and further afield, then reining himself back before yielding to Hancock and then Peacock. The bassist plays a solo that would be considered forward-thinking by contemporary standards; one can only imagine how it would have sounded to listeners at the time it was recorded. It's the thing that ends the album, too. And that seems fitting: Spring is the music of five seminal musicians in the early stages of their maturity, each with a keen eye focused on the horizon.