The elephant on the cover of tenor saxophonist David S. Ware’s three-disc Live in the World is the Hindu god Ganesh, often referred to as the “Remover of Obstacles.” It’s as if the legacies of tenor titans such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane had swelled into baggage, obstacles as much as inspirations. Ware—who studied briefly with Rollins as a teen—relieves burdens without misplacing valuables: Rollins’s streaming ideas and bristling low end, Coltrane’s questing sound and pealing highs, not to mention Ben Webster’s free-swinging swagger and Albert Ayler’s gritty tone, are all in his playing. But Ware’s massive sound is anything but derivative. And despite drum-chair changes, the quartet he’s led since the late 1980s is the most resilient, least heralded, best-sounding supergroup in modern jazz.
The proof is in these three discs, drawn from a 1998 Swiss concert and two 2003 Italian dates. Bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, who’ve ranged widely to great acclaim as leaders, do their most complete work with Ware. Never reliant on standard basslines or chord movement, the two weave webs shaped to Ware’s succinct melodies and ever shifting flow. That plays to Ware’s strength. Like Cecil Taylor, he isn’t a truly free player: He teases possibilities from distinct statements, each stamped by a different drummer. Hamid Drake’s snare rolls and cymbal crashes are finely attuned to the individual improvisations. Guillermo E. Brown’s aggressive attack lends spark. Susie Ibarra’s painterly polyrhythms, devoid of cliché, reach for the sublime.
Ware’s studio take on Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Way We Were” (1998’s Go See the World) began as a quartet deconstruction. Here, Ware enters alone, wrestles a phrase or two, buzzes through overtones, and veers into “My One and Only Love” and “Misty,” among other tunes, until the quartet joins him for a recognizable read. At the bridge, the song shatters into beautiful shards, for later reassembly. Disc three is devoted to Rollins’s 1958 Freedom Suite, its themes dissolved into Ware’s improvisations even more fluidly than on his 2003 recording.
Mostly, Ware refines his own compositions. “Sentient Compassion” (from 1993’s Third Ear Recitation) expands into a tender ballad, with Parker’s bass thumping like a Moroccan sintir and Shipp’s broken chords evoking a thumb piano as Ware’s high end softly flutters. And Ware strips “Aquarian Sound” (1992’s Flight of I) to its core, staked to Parker’s sturdy five-note theme and Shipp’s chiming clusters. A mountain of music—worth the climb for its glimpses of Ware’s unencumbered bliss.