Ware In the World
David S. Ware's tempestuous, arrogant deconstruction of "The Way We Were" is the 49-year-old tenor saxophonist's blistering new manifesto. With a brash, throaty tone, Ware wrestles soul out of the song's festering sentimentality and pathetic nostalgia, attempting an unwieldy synthesis of his titanic sax predecessors: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler. And while the weight of such forebears might seem impossible to shoulder, Ware--a burly, bearded man with a soft smile and piercing gaze--refuses to be intimidated by his influences. "We have only begun to hear the beauty that is possible with this music," Ware says. "Newness is freshness is bliss. That's a fact, man. That's what's going on."
Beat patter aside, Ware knows of what he speaks, and his pre-eminence on the fringe of the downtown New York out-jazz scene is undisputed. Now, with the release of Go See the World on Columbia, Ware has the rare opportunity to bridge the gap between the jazz vanguard and the avant-garde. As urbane, mild-mannered bop restylings continue to limit jazz to safe, congenial, and slightly irrelevant expressions, the self-styled outsiders populating the downtown scene have responded with exhilarating musical belligerence.
So while it's encouraging that Branford Marsalis--an embodiment of the tepid jazzocracy--got Ware his record deal with Columbia, his attempts to promote the album do sound a tad condescending. "I hear melody when David plays," Marsalis proclaims in a Columbia press release. Marsalis is attempting to suggest that Ware is accessible, though in doing so, he sort of misses the point.
Yet Marsalis is precisely the kind of advocate Ware--and free jazz in the '90s--needs. In response to years of dismissive treatment by their elite contemporaries, the NYC free-jazz scene has spent the last few years experimenting in an odd alliance with indie rock and turntable music. Luminaries of the jazz underground, including drummer William Hooker and Ware's bassist William Parker, regularly perform and record with Sonic Youth guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, as well as illbient DJs such as Spooky and Olive. The results are inspired in spirit, but most fall prey to the idea that rock-jazz interaction can only resolve itself in Glen Branca-style noise.
Ware, however, has refused to join in the cross-pollination of his younger peers. After stints with Cecil Taylor and Andrew Cyrille during the '60s and '70s, Ware put together his quartet, which, with the exception of drummer Susie Ibarra, who joined in 1996, has retained the same personnel since 1989. With this group, Ware has cultivated obscurity, releasing 11 albums on labels such as Homestead (which also released canonical indie-rock records by Sonic Youth, Sebadoh, and Dinosaur), Silkheart, and AUM Fidelity (which released Ware's best pre-World release, Wisdom of Uncertainty).
"Early on, I decided I'd rather drive a cab than freelance to pay the bills," Ware says. "People jump all over the place, so their music is stillborn." By contrast, Ware has refused to play session or sideman gigs, focusing on developing tight relationships with the members of his ensemble. "When you're playing with 14 cats at the same time, nothing gets developed," Ware says. "Groups don't become institutions anymore. You've got to suffer and sweat to make things tight."
Which brings up another difference between Ware and his like-minded '90s experimenters: He clearly wants to become an institution himself. As one of the only high-profile free-jazz signings in recent memory, Ware is being groomed by Columbia to become major talent. "I'm just beginning my career," insists the graying lion, whose recorded legacy and historical lineage (he was mentored by Sonny Rollins) place him at the edges of jazz legend.
Despite its abandon and wild intensity, what's most compelling about Go See the World is how its tight, intricate themes toy with the pop model of melody. Ware draws from Ornette Coleman's sense of layered, complex melodies and Albert Ayler's more dismissive attitude toward tunes. Yet, ultimately, both approaches only serve as launchpads for conversational group improvisation. As a result, Ware's hypermelodic themes can initially sound catchy, but keep expanding until they become too long-winded to hum along with.
Bassist William Parker sets the album's mellow, slightly skewed mood with his bassline on the opener, "Mikuro's Blues." After the quartet speeds through the fluttering theme in 10/4 time, everyone drops out as Parker plucks out a walking bassline that bounces, skips, stumbles, and then repeats its clumsy dance. Ibarra enters gently, gliding on her ride cymbal as pianist Matthew Shipp comes in with hesitant, ascending chords crammed into odd, empty spaces. Then Ware's solo builds from a jagged, bluesy moan into a howling rage, as Ibarra and Parker lock into a groove that makes the odd time signature feel as smooth as a straight-up 4/4.
With his fulminatory solos, Ware grapples to make vague emotions feel concrete. Although he gives his band isolated moments to romp on their own--note the underwhelming seven minutes of meandering volleys between Shipp, Ibarra, and Parker on "Estheticmetric"--he usually dominates, bossing his bandmates around the mix. The bossman makes startling entrances with his grainy bullhorn blasts, full of violently oscillating vibrato on the stunning "Quadrahex." His solos are relentless, reaching and straining as if to blow new, yet-unheard notes into being. Meanwhile, Parker and Ship wrap stealthy, improvised melodic accompaniments around Ware's outlandish escapades, subtly gesturing toward the tune's gurgling theme.
Throughout Go Save the World, Ibarra keeps Ware grounded. She tackles odd rhythms with a smooth sense of swing. She can play ferociously, but unlike most players who indulge in brash machismo, she doesn't feel the urge to pound and bang. Instead she derives her power from slight flicks of the wrist, and shines the most when she's playing minimal flourishes, dangling sleigh bells on the snare, placing small gonglike cymbals on her toms to create puffs of texture. "Susie has a spectacular alphabet, and she's still early in her development," Ware says. "The girth of her language is tremendous. She keeps me from repeating myself."
When pressed to describe the roles of his other fellow players, Ware pulls out bizarre metaphors culled from geology. He compares Shipp's playing to "fire and lava," and contrasts Ibarra's textures, which often favor swells of sound rather than pulsing grooves, to Parker's "strata of sound." "He sets up plateaus and plains," says Ware of Parker. "His bass sound is spacious. It's ethereal. It has to do with gas."
Parker's bow playing is certainly gassy--a spooky amelodic hum that blends in with Ware's tenor, creating the illusion of multiple horns. Most of the time, however, Parker plays mightily, channeling Mingus's ability to portray sensitivity with force. He's also the only player who occasionally oversteps. His bow playing on "Logistic" makes his usually punchy, thorny lines sound hoarse. His frenzied, skittery thrusts sometimes sound like an ice skater losing his balance--scraping, sputtering, and plummeting face first.
Conversely, Ware never falls through the trapdoor of incoherence, but he loves to dance around it. He's a master of courting and eluding annoyance: His colossal sound can hit your ear all wrong, a burst of incompatible frequencies that seem to penetrate and pound on your eardrums. But like Ayler at his best, Ware knows how to make the listener crave such violent treatment.
In a sense, Go See the World's dominant theme is eruption. At his furious best, Ware sounds like he's vomiting his notes, spewing out semidigested sounds (and pieces of history). His shuddering solos on "Quadrahex" continually cough up garbled chunks of the stately theme.
Even when Ware approaches masturbatory excess, he tempers his self-indulgence with an aggression that's more consuming than confrontational. "It bothers me that writers describe my music as violent," Ware says. "It is aggressive, but the aggression is friendly. It's a firm handshake. It's meant to inspire, not attack."
The David S. Ware Quartet plays 8 p.m. Saturday, October 24 at the Walker Art Center; 375-7622.
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