In all of drumming, the most sought-after ride cymbal sound has got to be that of Tony Williams in the 1960s. To an extreme extent— in people’s enthusiasm for that sound, they sometimes seem to forget there are other possible sound conceptions… perhaps a concern for another blog post.
Tony’s cymbal was a 22″ K. Zildjian, said to be approximately 2600 grams— not quite a medium. Tony selected it with the help of Max Roach, and in an interview in Modern Drummer magazine he called it a “high, dark sound.” Listening to the Miles Davis LPs, it never struck me as a particularly high sound. I would call it semi-dark, with focused harmonics, broad but controlled spread, capable of an explosive crash, non-metallic, with a pleasing, well-defined stick sound through a range of dynamics. Despite the claimed heavier weight, it is in the family of airy, expressive light cymbals and not stiff, chunky medium cymbals.
For me the definitive recordings soundwise are Nefertiti and Four & More. The ride cymbal sounds incredible on those recordings (especially on the original vinyl) but they may not be great guides for actually choosing a cymbal. Four & More gives a feeling of the large hall in which it was recorded, with the more subtle harmonics absorbed by the room— the attack is emphasized, and the cymbal sounds drier than it is. Nefertiti is better, though if you’re like me, you may have formed an idealized concept of the sound on it, and need to give the record a fresh, close listen for it to guide your cymbal choices.
The Plugged Nickel recordings seem to give the most natural picture of that cymbal that I’ve heard— it really sounds like we’re in the room, not too far from the drums. The sound is a little funkier, with somewhat wilder harmonics than we hear elsewhere, with a slightly more exotic crash sound, and more highs present (though that might be attributable to digital mastering). And it’s a familiar sound— I feel like I’ve played a cymbal like this before.
After about 3:50 we can give it a good listen:
It’s actually reminiscent of a number of Cymbal & Gong cymbals that have passed through our hands (scroll the video to 2:12, there’s some dead air at the beginning):
Of course, this cymbal is much lighter than weight claimed for Tony’s cymbal. And the bell shape is probably wrong, and possibly other things about its design and construction. At a certain point, in hunting for a certain, idealized cymbal and sound, we have to ask what is our goal? What are we looking for, what are we trying to create, or duplicate? We are not playing with Miles’s band, we are not in the situations on those recordings, and if we were, we might not sound as good as Tony. Tony’s actual cymbal might not sound like the Tony cymbal when you play it.
At a certain point, a player’s attitude has to take over, in which we are creating our own musical space and statement. Cymbals are unique musical instruments, and one of the main things we do as drumming artists is to work with cymbals to get the best sound from them, and use them expressively in our music.
The “Tony sound” is absolutely a great model for a jazz ride cymbal, but I see that not as a specific magic cymbal, but as a category: a full, dark, non-exotic, harmonious crashable moderately light weight 22″ ride with a defined stick sound.