Free at Last

Avant-jazz titans the David S. Ware Quartet triumphantly disband—sort of

I didn't disband the group," says saxophonist David S. Ware by phone from his home in Plainfield, N.J. "We came off tour in Europe two months ago." There's been some confusion of late, see, because a recent live album, Renunciation (AUM Fidelity), documents last year's final U.S. performance by the David S. Ware Quartet, one of the longest-running groups in New York free jazz. He says the group will reconvene for European festivals or one-offs if the money's right, but his bandmates seem comfortable with the idea of moving on to the next step in their individual musical journeys. And as far as American audiences are concerned, the David S. Ware Quartet is no more, period.

Ware claims not to see what the big deal is. "We don't work in America anyway," he says. "I coulda said that a long time ago. We almost never work in America—America's such a superficial place, full of superficial people. It doesn't even matter."

But to some of us, it does. Throughout the 1990s, the Ware quartet was one of the highest-profile and most admired groups in the jazz avant-garde. Releasing two albums on Columbia Jazz and 16 others on labels like AUM Fidelity, Silkheart, Homestead, and Thirsty Ear, they played the festival circuit and indie-rock venues alike, opening for Sonic Youth as easily as for Cecil Taylor.

One iteration of the David S. Ware Quartet: From left to right, William Parker, (former drummer) Susie Ibarra, Matthew Shipp, and David S. Ware of the David S. Ware Quartet
photo: Michael Galinsky
One iteration of the David S. Ware Quartet: From left to right, William Parker, (former drummer) Susie Ibarra, Matthew Shipp, and David S. Ware of the David S. Ware Quartet

Their music carried the innovations of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders into the future, with extended, ecstatic solos atop jagged, singsong melodies and subtle, ever-shifting rhythms. Ware is a total master of his instrument, able to make the tenor saxophone scream like a raging bull elephant, or play tender, resonant ballads like a bear singing lullabies to its cubs. He's also surrounded himself with equally accomplished cohorts. Each of the group's members—pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and a string of drummers including Marc Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra, and finally Guillermo Brown—built solo careers at least in part because of the quartet's sterling reputation. And when they would all reconvene, particularly at the annual Vision Festival downtown, they were an all-star team without peer. For a while, it seemed like they were the group that could bring free jazz to a public prominence it hadn't enjoyed since the 1960s—and that without them, the scene might shrivel into total insularity, the same dozen groups playing to the same few dozen diehards every year.

But Ware shrugs off such matters. "I don't even think about that," he says of his importance to New York's avant-garde. "You guys figure that out. It's not for me to ponder. I don't follow the scene anyway. I didn't hang out in New York even when I was living in New York [in the 1970s]. It's just not me."

Matthew Shipp agrees. "[David's] a staunch individualist and resents being seen as part of a scene," he says. "To me, people you think of as stereotypical Vision Fest acts are people like [drummer] Milford Graves." He doesn't attach much significance to last year's farewell show, either. "Patricia [Nicholson-Parker, wife of Ware Quartet bassist William Parker and driving force behind the Vision Festival] said if you're going to do a last American performance, why not do it at the Vision Fest? And [retiring the band] was just loose talk before that, but the gig came about and got defined that way, and then that's what ended up happening."

Ware has tried to be very clear about his intentions. Renunciation's liner notes, by the saxophonist himself, begin, "First of all, I would like it to be clearly understood that I am in no way renouncing the work of the David S. Ware Quartet." Renunciation, to Ware, is a spiritual condition—he's referring to renouncing the world and allowing the power of music to take him over and use him as a channel. The performance documented on the CD surely reflects that, while dramatizing the end of this stage of Ware's journey. The group revisits old compositions ("Mikuro's Blues," "Ganesh Sound," and "Saturnian") to begin and end the set, but the middle half-hour is an improvised, three-part "Renunciation Suite" that offers as much unaccompanied solo space for each member as it does fiery four-part interaction, fracturing the group into its component parts and symbolically leaving each member onstage alone, though surrounded by former compatriots.

Shipp seems to believe the group might have overstayed its welcome. "I really enjoy playing David's music," he says. "I've been a huge part of his universe, a universe that we have together. The synergy has been really good for both of us. But when you look at the John Coltrane group, they did all that music in a four- to five-year period. I just don't know if a small jazz group is meant to be together [for 17 years]— obviously, there are no rules in this universe, but on a certain level maybe it is time for everybody to move on."

The undeniable merits of 21st-century albums like BalladWare (recorded in 1999, released in 2006), Freedom Suite, and the strings-augmented Threads notwithstanding, it's easy to argue the quartet peaked with their two Columbia releases, 1999's Go See the World and 2000's Surrendered, and the attendant flurry of pretty much universally favorable press. "Despite the fact that people like Gary Giddins and Francis Davis were really into that band, the mainstream of jazz fans never got into it," says Shipp. "The people that would go out and see the Wayne Shorter quartet, which I think our quartet is infinitely superior to, would not come out to hear the David S. Ware Quartet. There was a certain type of mainstream success that David was never able to get."

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