In 1965, Tony Williams was a prodigious, 19-year old jazz drummer. A student of the greats like Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, Williams was ready to carve a style of his own from everything he had learned. By that time, he hadn’t even settled on his professional name and was still listed as ‘Anthony Williams’ on album covers. But he’d been drafted by Miles Davis, then arguably the biggest jazz musician in the world, to play in his second quintet among other luminaries such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

Max Roach and Tony Williams. Chicago, circa 1965. Photo: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty.

This was a moment where jazz was in flux. While many players stayed true to the bop way of improvising over chord progressions, others started exploring new ideas and influences. Music from that period is often described with the vague catch-all term ‘post-bop’. It is mostly used for jazz that isn’t hard bop but also isn’t free jazz, as in what Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor were doing. There’s a lot of freedom, but still some structure as well.

In that climate, young Tony WIlliams played on several revolutionary albums, like Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch!” from 1964, and Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure” from a year later. He made clear that in spite of his immersion in classic jazz drumming technique, he wasn’t a traditionalist. His first set as a band leader, “Life Time”, underlined this experimental approach, weaving in complex polyrhythms and transitioning between time signatures.

Williams’ sophomore album “Spring” was recorded in August 1965 at Englewood Cliffs in Rudy Van Gelder’s iconic studio, just a few weeks after John Coltrane had recorded “Ascension” there – an atonal “big band album” that is seen as a watershed in Coltrane’s catalogue, dividing the more accessible from his more avant-garde works. “Spring” wasn’t as loose as “Ascension”, but by no means was Williams sticking to the old school formula, as none of the tunes here had a real theme nor a familiar structure.

Williams assembled pianist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter who were bandmates from the Miles Davis quintet. Bassist Gary Peacock had just played with free jazz adventurers Albert Ayler and Paul Bley. The second saxophonist, Sam Rivers, was one of Williams’ early mentors and the oldest player in the studio. They played a breath-taking session, giving each other plenty of space. All five compositions on “Spring” were Williams’ own. For a 19 year old, that’s something.

The album starts out with “Extras”, a wild collage of a tune with no identifiable theme and alternating solos from Shorter and Rivers. The second track “Echo” is a five-minute drum solo that showcases Williams masterfully juggling tempos. On “From Before”, Hancock steps into the spotlight in typical break-neck speed. “Love Song” is the most traditionally swinging tune, letting Rivers shine for a moment, while on album closer “Tee”, the inimitable Shorter gets back into the mix. Towards the very end, Peacock plays a memorable solo that cuts the tune short abruptly, leaving the listener dumbfounded, going right back to the beginning.

“Spring” is a perfect example for the adventurous, heavily improvised and rule-breaking style of playing that broke its way in the mid-1960s, especially in the younger generation of jazz musicians. This music wasn’t out to please or entertain anyone – records like these proved that jazz could be as sophisticated, challenging, and ambitious as any other contemporary art music. To reap the rewards, you need to deeply engage with it.

Stephan Kunze is a writer, journalist and book author, covering music, arts and culture. He held leading editorial positions at Spotify and Juice magazine. Kunze lives in Berlin and rural Northern Germany.

Header photo: Tony Williams. © Francis Wolff / Blue Note Records