Imagine being 17 years old and having Miles Davis as your boss.

I have long admired Tony Williams, although admittedly, there were periods in his musical career that didn’t always light my fire. Still, when you look at his body of work, and you certainly should do so if you want to study some genius, one question should come up after every listen:

Are you as brave as Tony Williams?

I ask myself that question now and then to keep some perspective on rhythmic explorations and the idea that we should be Columbus, not the guys that followed Columbus. When I think of Tony Williams, the word “fearless” comes to mind and never leaves. You can hear it in every beat, every note and all the spaces in between. The guy simply played without fear.

He was a jazz drummer, so his playing breathed a little more than playing being mated to a click track. Something in him BEGGED to get out through the drums. I don’t think he played so much as he was BEING played by energy that sought out flams, rolls, thundering bass drum licks and brilliantly musical cymbal explorations.

With the power of rock and the improvisation of jazz, Tony Williams ushered in the era of fusion and much that has come as a result. Listen to The Trio of Doom sometime, with Jaco Pastorius and John McLaughlin if you want to hear some balls to the wall playing.

I played at an improv yoga class ion San Luis Obispo a few years ago, and the bass player asked me who some of my influences were. I mentioned Cobham, Erskine and Williams, and I told him that when I play, I imagine Miles Davis standing a few feet away. The thought always helps keep me in check, to avoid over-playing… but it also reminds me that I need to have some serious guys and go for it at all times if music is to sound alive and go someplace it hasn’t been taken yet.

Think about that at your next gig, and then ask yourself this question: am I brave enough to go beyond Tony Williams?

The answer and the musical results might just surprise you.