Live in the World
Thirsty Ear THI 57153.2

David S. Ware doesn’t shy away from the Free Jazz label. Unlike some contemporary improvisers who say they play Free Music and treat jazz the way nouveau riche yuppies view acquaintances still wearing last year’s clothes, the tenor saxophonist esteems the tradition that goes back through 1960s New Thing to take in distinctive reed stylists such as Sonny Rollins and before that Coleman Hawkins.

This three-CD set of live performances helps stake his claim as one of the foremost jazz tenor saxophone stylist in the 21st century. Made up of one 1998 Swiss concert and two Italian gigs from 2003, it features three different drummers: the band’s former trapsperson, Susie Ibarra; its present one Guillermo E. Brown; and Hamid Drake, the gentleman from Chicago who often plays with the quartet’s longtime bassist William Parker. Ware’s tough love jazz values are such that they run roughshod over any tendency towards electronica or world music in which some of the other players have indulged at other times. The three hours of music also confirm Ware’s status as a major league jazzer.

Key statement here is the first disc and two additional tracks from the same session on discs two and three that couldn’t have been squeezed onto CD1. By the time it ends, the Ware-Parker-Ibarra-pianist Matthew Shipp four has fused into an indivisible unit of improvisational skill, sort of like the Modern Jazz Quartet or John Coltrane’s classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Here and on the other CDs, Shipp demonstrates that in the right situation his jazz credentials are fully in order and his comping and pianisms perfectly mesh with the rest; ditto for Parker’s rasping and rhythmic double bass underpinning.

Somewhat constrained by the band’s heavy jazz orientation, Ibarra’s use of offbeat and miscellaneous percussion still confirms that she offered the most varied percussion response to the others’ testosterone-fuelled playing. Drake, whose experience with Chicago veterans like tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson allows him to mix the unexpected with heavy time keeping is also a fine addition. Brown, a beat-meister does his job thoroughly and competently.

His powerful yet commonplace rhythmic work is why CD3 is the weakest of the three discs. Although the lengthening and recasting of Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” are noteworthy, especially for Shipp’s high-frequency gospellish piano work, the four tracks are most impressive to “Suite” virgins. Ware recorded his definitive studio version of the suite for AUM Fidelity (AUM 023) that same year, and the necessity for the preservation of a live version is somewhat louche. Rollins himself only recorded the original once.

Back to the Swiss date however, and the almost 32-minute “Aquarian Sound”. Pivoting on Parker’s walking, modal fills from Shipp, and steady cymbal clinks and bouncing bass drum beats from Ibarra, Ware initially enters mimicking the rhythmic backbeat. Soon, however, he pushes himself into double-tonguing glossolalia, encompassing a swelling crescendo of resonating honks and reverberating blasts. Depending on extended variation provided by sonorous bass thumps, Shipp begins to vigorously voice patterns that seem to draw on Herbie Hancock’s freebop period. Shipp’s dramatic voicing extend the music even further, sluicing from treble to bass clef without interrupting its vigorous flow, and only gearing down half way through to make space for a low-pitched arco solo of strained, high-pitched motions from Parker that melt into moderato and legato shuffle bowing. Meanwhile, Ibarra is cunningly altering the backing with gourd-shaking, gong-soundings and cymbal claps.

When the head is finally recapitulated, by Ware’s droning tongue stops and Shipp’s stolid heavy chording, she has switched to brisk cross rhythms. This precedes a climatic, extended – and concluding – renal scream from Ware.

Ibarra brings similar inventiveness to “Stargazer”, CD3’s bonus track from 1998 appended to the 2003 material. Except in this case the pianist varies his output as well. Feeding prepared, almost harpsichordic tones or quivering, theremin-like timbres to the composition, Shipp’s foreshortened piano expressions meet up with cymbal cracks, varied patterning on the snares, and crosswise stick thumps. Parker’s penetrating bass lines link these quirks with focused comping from Shipp that resembles mainstream nightclub strategies. On top of all this is Ware’s majestic soling, which creeps in mildly then distends into colossal foghorn-like honks and overblowing, nasally masticating the notes.

For the unconvinced, there’s how Ware recomposes Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Way We Were”, as it morphs from unrecognizable to almost familiar. Low-key rumination, split-tone variations and body-tube blasts a cappella is Ware’s initial strategy, until a few minutes later false register glissandi hints at the melody’s harmonics. With his droning vibrato wide and wider and his use of glottal punctuation and double tonguing referencing Rollin’s and Coltrane’s way with a ballad, by the finale he finally double-times the recognizable tune. His variations may be like the tail wagging the dog, but what a tail it is.

Drake’s interface brings out the Tyner-like modal emphasis in Shipp’s playing, scraping and sawing double-stopped runs from Parker and some of Ware’s most emotional soloing. But considering his cross-handed deliberations hardly let a phrase from the others pass without a flam, rebound or ruff comment, lesser histrionics are really Drake’s forte.

One of those tunes is “Unknown Mansion”, an edifice that seems to have been partially built on the calypso-chanting Caribbean island where Rollins likes to dwell. Varying his beat patterns with doubled smashes and Latinesque prettiness, Drake somehow manages to get the usually dour-sounding Ware to appear as if he’s swinging a Louis Jordan ditty. At one point you can swear you hear the riff from “Open the Door, Richard”. Meantime Shipp is uncoiling cadences that contain Monk-like key clipping and steady, left-handed percussive notes. Harmonically conservative compared to Ibarra’s accompaniment, Drake is as externally directed in his solos. Apparently spanking his toms and snares with his palms, he also horizontally cross patterns a single drum on those same surfaces, while simultaneously propelling the beat with hi-hat and cymbal resonation. Ware, almost mellow, returns to sound broken cadences in tandem with Shipp and provides a clenched-teeth version of the head.

Subsequent tunes like “Sentient Compassion” and “Co Co Cana” may feature harder reed tone and shrill whinnying from Ware, but, possibly because of Drake, his abrasive tone is less than it would be with Brown. On the first he reverberates split tones back and forth, as Parker bows vibrating double stops, bringing out the woodenness of his bass along with the solidity of his strings. Combined, the four produce almost ballad-like twittering lines that echo onto themselves. On the later, Ware’s high-pitched yelps, Drake’s rim shots and Shipp’s high frequency double counterpoint serve as backing for a Parker display. Moving from walking to relay race string action on the fretboard, Parker double stops with masculine power and by the end of his solo has Shipp spinning out circular patterns to sustain his momentum.

LIVE IN THE WORLD is a major achievement in quantitative heft as well as music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD 1: 1. Aquarian Sound 2. Logistic 3. Sentient Compassion 4. Mikuro’s Blues CD 2: 1. Elder’s Path 2. Unknown Mansion 3. Sentient Compassion 4. Co Co Cana 5. Manu’s Ideal 6. Lexicon CD 3 [Freedom Suite]: 1. Part One 2. Part Two 3. Part Three 4. Part Four 5. Stargazer

Personnel: Disc One: David S. Ware (tenor saxophone); Matthew Shipp (piano); William Parker (bass); Susie Ibarra (drums): Disc Two: Ware; Shipp; Parker; Hamid Drake (drums) Disc Three: Ware; Shipp; Parker; Guillermo E. Brown (drums)