Songwise

Avant innovators rescue standards, pop overtures, and plantation lullabies

Its title is the only thing self-explanatory about tenor saxophonist David S. Ware's Balladware, recorded seven years ago but released only this fall. On "Yesterdays," the opener, the swoop of Ware's vibrato might trick you into assuming you're hearing Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis or some other classic honker easing into a love song as a change of pace—weeping in his beer chaser after downing the hard stuff in one rip. Along with the free meter implied by William Parker's bass and Guillermo E. Brown's cymbals, the giveaway that these tenor yawps are post-Coltrane is Matthew Shipp's underlying piano chords, extrapolated from Kern but as dissonant as they are rhapsodic. The song itself becomes the performance's shock element: Even though Ware has recorded it before (likewise "Autumn Leaves," "Tenderly," "Angel Eyes," and Balladware's three originals—which probably explains why this impressive session was held back), we're still not used to hearing a standard deployed as a framework for free improvisation. An overfamiliar melody just adds to the suspense.

Sure, Coltrane recorded standards well into the '60s, but that was a transitional era for him and forjazz in general. Bob Thiele, his last producer (who spun a good yarn) used to claim that Ballads and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman were intended to placate reviewers taken aback by epic performances like "Chasin' the Trane." But has any label, especially a major subsidiary, ever targeted an album primarily to reviewers? Another frequent explanation is that Coltrane was taking it easy following extensive dental work—equally dubious, because as saxophonists will tell you, the measured legato a ballad requires is about the last thing you want to tackle when your gums hurt. Coltrane, no doubt encouraged by Thiele, was simply meeting that day's casual listeners halfway, beguiling them (and radio DJs) with modest variations on numbers popularized by Sinatra and Nat Cole. But who under the age of 50 has the lyrics to those songs going through his or her head now? Standards figure in the marketplace today largely as a way of letting aging rock stars play dress-up, and I often find myself having to explain to younger people what I even mean by the word.

The only remaining incentive for a jazz instrumentalist to do standards—the best reason all along—is what they have to offer harmonically. This certainly seems to be what draws Ware to them—although in his case, "harmony" takes the form of ecstatic, full-scale revision, not just running the chords. Including those here and his two monumental recordings of "The Way We Were," he has a knack for picking songs whose air of rumination suits his melodramatic instincts. Just because he likes songs doesn't mean he lets them off easy, any more than Sonny Rollins does or Coltrane did with "I Want to Talk About You." Yet vestiges of the founding melodies and chords are discernible even during Ware's extended a cappella spurts midway through both "Yesterdays" and "Tenderly"—premature cadenzas that raise the stakes for everything that follows.

David S. Ware, ecstatic standard-bearer
Mephisto/DAPR/ZUMA Press
David S. Ware, ecstatic standard-bearer

Details

David S. Ware Quartet
Balladware
Thirsty Ear

David Binney
Cities and Desire
Criss Cross

Andy Biskin Quartet
Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster
Strudelmedia

Andy Biskin
Trio Tragico
Strudelmedia

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    Ware's revisited originals—"Godspelized" (Horace Silver–cum–Pharoah Sanders sanctified screaming), "Dao" (major to minor, but in no other way modal), and "Sentient Compassion" (a semi-waltz segue into "Tenderly")—prove as durable as any of the album's chestnuts. They're the kinds of tunes you could imagine other bands picking up on, if that sort of thing still happened. With Shipp's dug-in piano bracing Ware's climbs, this was arguably the best small group of the '90s—especially after Brown (making his debut here) took over on drums and locked in with Parker to shift the emphasis from Whit Dickey and Susie Ibbara's colorations to something resembling a groove.

    Balladware's release now may be no more than stopgap product while Ware readies his new quartet with violinist Mat Maneri. There are no liner notes, and any publicist who expects me to hold on to press releases has never seen my desk. But I seem to recall reading this date came about because the band returned from a European tour too worn out to tackle anything new or fast. For all of that, I think this is one of Ware's very best recordings.

    It figures I would, because I like old songs. They're disappearing from jazz, and I hate to see them go. Neo-boppers tend to know only those songs recorded by Miles or Coltrane, which appeal to them only as harmonic scaffolding. Avant-gardists like Ware, structuralists by nature, are ideally equipped to dissect songs and examine how the parts fit—and when they do, there's pleasurable tension in hearing both song and player cast against type. But most such players are themselves composers disinclined to perform anyone else's material, or total improvisers for whom the very idea of "material" is anathema.

    Ironically, despite having otherwise severed ties, mainstream jazz still holds on (as if for dear life) not just to classic pop's 32-bar song structure but to a theme-and-solos format dating back to the days when Gershwin, Berlin, Porter, and lesser lights from Broadway and Hollywood supplied half the jazz repertoire. Alto saxophonist David Binney's Cities and Desire successfully shakes off these remaining bonds without discarding song altogether. Binney's themes, lusty and engaging despite being metrically irregular and structurally oblong, never just bracket the solos—and never inhibit them, either. This is a concept album, named for a chapter in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and the pieces segue into one another as if parts of a suite. But this impression of unity owes less to thematic similarity than to the longing and disquiet conveyed throughout by Binney and Mark Turner's saxophone unisons, Craig Taborn's piano stitching, and Dan Weiss's ticking drums. The most exciting moments come during "Montreal," when Binney and Turner bounce off each other in lieu of soloing sequentially; the only false touches are Weiss's brief bits of tabla and stilted sprechstimme.

    The lack of a common repertoire means it's every man for himself in determining which alien material is close enough for jazz, but this has delivered unexpected blessings, ranging from Uri Caine's Mozart to Don Byron's Mickey Katz. Someone figured to dedicate an entire album to Stephen Foster sooner or later, and clarinetist Andy Biskin's Early American makes you wonder why it took so long. American popular song begins with Foster's mid-19th-century plantation melodies, however much we shy away from their demeaning lyrics, which Foster on at least one occasion specified were to be delivered "a la niggerando." Leading a quartet with Chris Washburne on trombone or tuba, Pete McCann on guitar or banjo, and John Hollenbeck on drums (so into it and resourceful you'd swear he was playing spoons here and there), Biskin proves the innate dignity of songs like "Old Black Joe" and "Old Folks at Home" rests in their melodies. The only hint of stiff-legged parody is on the wonderful "There's a Good Time Coming," with its delirious eruptions of polka, klezmer, and Mahavishnu-like distortion and fuzz.

    But this song was intended as a parody to begin with, Foster's adaptation of a temperance anthem. Everything on Early American, including an abstracted "Beautiful Dreamer" and a handful of originals more or less in the Foster manner (the most robust a bumping blues called "Thin King Thinking"), attests to Biskin's admiration for this vintage material, despite his cheeky approach to it. Trio Tragico, a simultaneous release featuring Biskin with trumpeter Dave Ballou, bassist Drew Gress, and no drummer, gives a clearer picture of him as a composer with a flair for quick little Monk-like tunes with well-constructed bridges, and as a clarinetist whose intonation is so good he can go sharp without sounding shrill. But Early American is the one that shows his reach.

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