David S. Ware: Saxophone Colossus

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Avant-garde saxophonist David S. Ware and his quartet represent a new breed of jazz players whose notes will reverberate into the next century. By Bill Meyer

Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware’s stormy, high-energy music encompasses the history of jazz. Enthuses Matthew Shipp, who plays piano in Ware’s quartet, “He’s one of the last of the Mohicans—there’s nobody in the world who has what he has. In one way, he embodies the whole tenor tradition; there’s the stream of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler in his playing, and all that represents. Then there’s the added dimension of the whole Sonny Rollins thing and the whole Rahsaan Roland Kirk thing, too. To my knowledge, there is nobody who has synthesized the whole tenor tradition in the way he has.”

This synthesis is the product of decades of hard work on the avant-garde fringe, work that’s come to fruition with the Columbia Records release of his quartet’s new album, Go See The World.

Ware was born in 1950 in Scotch Plains, N.J. “I was raised in a house where I heard music early on,” he recalls. “My father had all of these hundreds of 78 records: Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, blues bands.” David came home from a fifth-grade band demonstration all set to play the drums, but his dad redirected him to the saxophone. “I guess that’s why I’m always going through one thing or another with drummers, because I would have been a drummer,” Ware says. “I always feel close to the drummers.”

Nonetheless, he took to the tenor saxophone, and within a couple years, he was exchanging letters with one of the instrument’s masters: Sonny Rollins. This correspondence developed into an informal apprenticeship. “When I was in seventh or eighth grade, he started writing me letters,” says Ware. “To make a long story short, it was basically around 1969 when I finally just told him, ‘Look man, I would like to play for you.’ So he invited me over to his apartment in Brooklyn. After that, we started hanging out and we started practicing together because he saw that I was a sincere individual. I was like 19 or 20 at the time. I used to tell his wife that this is like a little boy meeting Superman—it was a dream come true to be able to develop a relationship with him.”

Ware has followed Rollins’ example in several important ways. Like his idol, he’s a life-long student of his instrument—both men have taken years off from their public careers to practice their horn. Like Rollins, Ware has gone his own way regardless of what anyone has had to say about the music he plays. And both men, after a certain point, stopped working as sidemen in other people’s bands so they could focus on their own ideas.

Ware also took inspiration from other key players. A 1966 concert by Coltrane’s group with Pharoah Sanders was an example of how intense, energetic music could transport a listener into a state of spiritual ecstasy. “It really opened up something in me,” says Ware. “It made me want to keep going in whatever direction I was going in—it propelled me forward. I was just so very, very happy.” (You can hear some of this performance on Coltrane’s epic Live At The Village Vanguard Again! on Impulse.)

For 18 months in the mid-‘70s, Ware played with pianist Cecil Taylor, whose percussive approach meshed well with Ware’s rhythmic affinity. After Taylor, Ware worked for William Hooker, Andrew Cyrille, Beaver Harris and Milford Graves (all drummers) and started to develop his own band. In the early ‘80s, Ware toured Europe and recorded a couple of now-rare LPs, but for most of that decade, the only public place you could find him was in the driver’s seat of a New York City cab. He dropped out of the music scene to work undistracted on his craft, and the years of woodshedding are evident in his tireless stamina and unique instrumental voice. In his horn’s midrange, Ware gets a huge, grainy tone with a fluttering vibrato that gives his melodies emotional weight. His extended forays into the upper register leap from quicksilver squeals to complex split tones.

But Ware wasn’t just working on his own chops; he was developing a band concept. Many jazz musicians spend their whole careers playing in impermanent ad-hoc groupings, but since 1989, Ware has maintained a stable quartet that’s recorded 11 albums. Parker has been his bassist since the late ‘70s; Shipp has been with him since 1989; Susie Ibarra stepped into the drummer’s chair in 1996 (replacing Whit Dickey). Ware never sits in with other groups, preferring to stick to his own band.

“I really believe in that very strongly,” says Ware. “I think I’ve got enough music to deal with on my own; I don’t like to play under somebody else’s umbrella philosophically. I don’t know what they’re into. Yeah, it could be another payday—whatever, we all need money—but there are certain things that are more important to me than making money. That’s why I drove a cab for all those years, so I wouldn’t have to go through that. Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus—these people were institutions, their bands were institutions, a chance for players to come through there until they get it together. I think there needs to be more of that. I think isolation like that is good. Things get a chance to solidify, develop, and you get a chance to get thorough in a certain thing.”

“What David wants,” explains Shipp, “is a very deep level of communication where you don’t even have to talk a lot—things are just felt. He doesn’t like to teach you things; he really feels that if you don’t find a solution for yourself to a particular piece, whatever is the problem that is being worked out, that there’s no point for you to even be playing.”

“What he wants is for the music to be itself,” says Parker. “His concept is not telling you what to do. Hopefully, what you play will be the right thing.”

This method might sound haphazard, but the results are not. Each member of Ware’s quartet has a strong individual voice; by keeping the group together long enough for them to really know each other’s playing and his tunes, Ware has created a sonic force field that wields amazing power with terrifying precision. Each musician fulfills multiple functions and can change roles instantly. Shipp defines the tonal architecture, but he also batters out great rhythm blocks. Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs create near-orchestral textures, but her swinging stick work is also the gas flame that heats Ware to the boiling point. Parker’s tightly knotted plucking erects an abstract but structurally essential scaffolding for his leader’s forays, but he can redirect a piece with the irresistible gravity of his bowed solos. The point of all this effort, as Ware sees it, is simply to play improvised music with care and trained intuition instead of random indulgence.

“I want to see this music have the attention that it deserves,” he says. “Now that means that if it gets the attention that it deserves, it should be worthy, it has to be together. I want to see the music in its correct position of influence, of prestige. This should be a music that’s held in high esteem. It’s not. It’s totally misunderstood by musicians and listeners alike. There needs to be more education about what’s going on in the music—the philosophical side of it and the musical side of it. All of these things need to be brought out, but no one’s going to listen to you anyway if you’re not held in high esteem. Us being on Columbia is part of that. It’s part of the music rising to its correct position.”

The quartet’s recent signing to Columbia is an event so flabbergasting that it could make an atheist believe in angels. Although the label once issued influential recordings by Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, its main contribution to the past 20 years of jazz is Wynton Marsalis, a solid technician whose neo-conservative vision aspires to turn the music into a museum piece. One aspect of this neo-conservative agenda has been a concerted effort to deny that what the quartet plays is jazz at all. Ironically, it was Wynton’s brother, Branford—in his first act as a creative consultant for Columbia’s jazz division—who signed the band.

Go See The World shows no signs of external tampering; instead, it captures the group at the top of its interactive game. “When you look at what else constitutes major-label jazz,” says Shipp, “it’s such a joke that it’s actually kind of funny that we’re there. Basically, this is a chance to be a terrorist and assault the major-label jazz world, which I hold in complete disdain.”

Ware takes a less inflammatory view. “It is a prestigious thing to be on Columbia,” he says. “It has a long history, and to be part of that is an accomplishment in itself for me on a personal level. I hope that our success will bring something to this avant-garde part of music. Because it needs all the help that it can get.”

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