Go Tell It on the Mountain

David Ware’s Quartet Demands Overstatement

Let's be bold: The David S. Ware Quartet is the best small band in jazz today. I realize that I will almost certainly hear another quartet, or trio or quintet or octet, this week or next, that will make me want to backpedal. But every time I see Ware's group or return to the records, it flushes the competition from memory. Besides, hyperbole is so much fun and I do it so rarely, no? Thus, with the first set of last week's two-night Blue Note gig resounding in my ears, along with an imminent new CD, Corridors & Parallels (Aum Fidelity), I effortlessly banish from consciousness every other bandleader who might inspire a like-minded leap of faith and stoke the experience of listening to Ware and wanting—in that interval at least—to hear nobody else.

His sound alone is enough to clear the room of contenders. It is huge, big enough to house a large family, several pets, and half the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Size is not and has never been a sine qua non for tenor saxophonists; Coleman Hawkins had an extrovert sound and Lester Young an introvert sound, and yet they are equals in God's view. Nor is size per se of much value if it isn't unique, personal, inviolable. Ware's sound is virtually unrelated to the roomy traditions of soul tenors, honking tenors, or deep-chested boudoir ballad tenors. It derives from the classic, free, often vociferous tradition of Ben Webster as filtered through the 1960s trinity of Rollins, Coltrane, and Ayler, all of whose shadows can be traced—Rollins in Ware's capacious low register, Coltrane in his high overblowing, Ayler and Webster in the grit that coats his every note with a sandstone finish, all four in the euphoric tenacity he calls bliss.

Shadows, however, are only shadows. Ware's distinct sound and Holy Roller fervor were already evident when he was 25, performing in Cecil Taylor's unforgettable 1974 Carnegie Hall big band. He became more assured through subsequent touring with Taylor's working unit and Andrew Cyrille's Maono, promising a formidable career that suddenly petered out. For several years, he drove a cab and worked out his next move, which took shape in the late '80s, when he organized a quartet for a record date. He chose pianist Matthew Shipp, who was completely unknown, bassist William Parker, with whom he had worked in Taylor's band, and drummer Marc Edwards, whose chair was subsequently taken over by Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra, and, at present, Guillermo E. Brown, the quartet's most aggressive percussionist to date. A series of astonishing albums followed, among them Flight of I, Third-Ear Recitation, Godspellized, and Go See the World.

Nearly vocalized urgency intensified by a virtuoso attack
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Nearly vocalized urgency intensified by a virtuoso attack

Although his style combines high-energy free improvisation, brazenly distended ballads, and "godspellized" bliss pieces, Ware communicates easily and readily, his improvisations suggesting a nearly vocalized urgency intensified by a virtuoso attack. Too much downtown time got him pegged as a shocker, but in fact he has always had broader appeal; it simply has not been exploited. Rollins praised him in interviews, and after Columbia distributed two of his DIW CDs, Branford Marsalis signed him, making Ware the only artist he brought to the label during his tenure as an executive. Two superb albums followed: Go See the World and Surrendered. Neither was publicized in any way. Then Ware was jettisoned, though waddaya wanna bet both CDs will be issued in a few years as classics with alternate takes and acerbic liner comments about Columbia's stewards of the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, the Ware Quartet became home base for a small jazz industry, as Shipp and Parker pursued even more record and performance projects—ranging from solo recitals to big bands—than the leader. Like the extracurricular activities of Miles Davis's second quintet, their outside work differs greatly from what they play with Ware. Take for example their current CDs. Piercing the Veil, Volume 1 (Aum Fidelity), by Parker and Chicago's spellbinding percussionist Hamid Drake, is rollicking entertainment—not what you'd expect from a bass-drums duo. Yet they double on so many winds, flutes, and bells that the variety is almost as relentless as the wit and high spirits. According to Steven Joerg, the brains behind Aum Fidelity, the second volume, due next year, will be volume one remixed in a "DJ/club style."

Shipp's latest String Trio album, Expansion, Power, Release (hatOLOGY), with Parker and violinist Mat Maneri, is—no hyperbole here—an enticing, irresistible work that is certain to make many of the year's best-of lists. It was recorded in late 1999, before last year's stunning New Orbit, but completes his cycle of six Hat Art CDs. Call it his Bernard Herrmann project, although all the music is original. The 14 brief selections are held together by a mesmerizing ostinato figure in the Herrmann style that might have served Vertigo perfectly. In this it carries on from Shipp's preceding Hat disc, Gravitational Systems, a duet with Maneri—specifically "Forcefield," a six-note ostinato loosely reprised here in "Waltz" and "Speech of Form." The principal vamp this time is an eight-note variation, heard on the opening "Organs" and, later, "Functional Form." These recurring, repeated, appealing figures lend unity to an album that achieves a rare level of emotional satisfaction. It offers anomalous delights as well: Shipp's candid nod to early Cecil at the top of "Combinational Entity," Maneri's unaccompanied solo on "Pulse Form," and the closing groove track, "One More," which might have been called "One More Time," considering Parker's bluesy basswalk, Shipp's rocking and rumbling chords, and Maneri's solid elaboration, including a few glisses that sound more like swipes.

Ware's forthcoming Corridors & Parallels (the release date is September 18) will be controversial, as it omits one of the quartet's central pleasures—Shipp's piano, sacrificed to the introduction of Ware's Korg synthesizer played by Shipp with settings devised by himself and Ware that range from organ tonalities to hurricane winds to Sun Ra tinkering to funk, Afro-Cuban, and Afro-Afro rhythms. Consisting of eight main selections and three short untitled transitional pieces on which Ware does not appear, the paradoxical net result is a first-rate Ware showcase—even though he makes his first entrance five minutes into the disc. At that point Shipp—in his organ mode—mostly lays out, and tenor, bass, and drums lock down for the relatively conventional, aptly titled "Straight Track," an exuberant instance of Ware's capacity to avoid cliché while upholding passion and clarity. Parker snaps the strings so hard you can almost feel them slap the wood. Shipp returns toward the end, piling on the rhythm, and joining in a nicely abrupt finish.

"Jazz Fi-Sci" is less successful, a disjointed back-and-forth dialogue between tenor and synth that offers a certain gimmicky pleasure, but smacks too much of foreplay interruptus—just when you think Ware will finally take off he halts for a synth interlude. "Superimposed" is a mini Ware festival, boasting an elaborate hoot of a solo, played (without dubbing) against synth rhythms that suggest a whole tribe of percussionists. The euphoric edge is fully extended until the humorous wind-down—Ware sounds as if he's running out of fuel. No less pleasing is "Sound-a-Bye," in which he creates barely mobile melody out of what is essentially a three-minute drone, continuing after the others fade away and then fading himself. It's completely convincing and like nothing else I can think of. More ambitious is "Corridors & Parallels," with its synth whistling, funk, zooming arco bass, and a bristling Ware, who enters like an electric shock and essays a thrillingly upbeat holler of a solo that produces an oddly liturgical feeling—sort of "Ascension" meets "He Loved Him Madly." After its mere eight minutes, you feel washed in the blood of the lamb. Even the layered fade—with Brown's backbeat lingering the longest—works.

"Somewhere" and "Spaces Embraces" are three-minute toss-offs—the first all creaky synth, arco bass, and swirling snares, and the second a vain attempt by Ware to salvage the disc's one meretricious misfire and losing to old-hat sci-fi synth banality. Then he comes roaring back for a masterly performance in his best fire-and-brimstone manner. "Mother May You Rest in Bliss" is both fresh and familiar, built on foundations laid by Rollins and Coltrane, erected anew on Parker's buttressing bowed bass. It's raucous pop gospel, flowing with melody, harmony, and wind chimes. As is often the case, Ware becomes more ardent the longer he goes, the more agitated he becomes. Only the brief rhythm transition disappoints—what you want here is a cannonading Shipp piano solo—but Ware returns for the amen chorus.

At the Blue Note, the quartet was its old captivating self, everyone stretching out, each solo a short novel without a single longueur. Working from his usual book, he began with a 30-minute "Surrendered," which opened and closed with Ware's incantatory song and had Shipp kneading the piano in a chordal solo, which led to display work on bass and drums, including a high-hat fantasia. They continued with a fast, intense, and unified "Lexicon" (Go See the World); the very blissed-out "Sentient Compassion" (Third-Ear Recitation), complete with almighty cadenza; and the less blissful but more punctilious set closer, "Bliss Theme" (Great Bliss). Best small band in jazz today.

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