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Saxophonist David S. Ware trawls the tape vaults for a trifecta of classic concert dates

Have Tenor, Will Travel

Expectation of perpetual innovation can be an albatross around the creative musician’s neck. Saxophonist David S. Ware knows this burden all to well. Several of his most recent projects found him experimenting with electronics and synthesized string orchestrations, much to the chagrin of vocal factions of his fan base. Similarly, his decision to leaven forward momentum with a look back at one of Sonny Rollins’ seminal works caused spokespersons within the jazz intelligentsia to claim he was listing on his laurels. There’s just no pleasing everyone. But Live in the World will likely slake the prattling critics and pinion their jaws blithely agape, at least for the here and now.

Nearly four hours of music crammed on to three discs, the set is at once a cross-section and celebration of Ware’s most famous and enduring unit, his quartet. Throughout much of the 1990s and into the new millennium, this group enjoyed a cachet commensurate with a top-tier slot in creative improvised music. Their albums for labels like Homestead, AUM Fidelity and DIW drew on the decades-past precedence of the late-period John Coltrane foursome – McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones – and stretched it in personalized and exploratory directions. Pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker were the fixture co-conspirators in Ware’s cause. In figurative Spinal Tap fashion the one revolving seat was the drum chair, and this set spotlights the shift in ensemble dynamics caused by the fluctuating percussion personnel.

Each of the three discs presents music from a separate concert. The first, recorded in Chiasso, Switzerland, in November of 1998 with Susie Ibarra on the skins, spills over onto the other discs in the form of two bonus tracks. Ibarra’s presence on all three discs parallels her primacy as the band’s most valuable drummer. Ware wears his late-Trane allegiance prominently on his billowy dashiki, building his solos in ecstatic gusts and always keeping an ear attuned to the sonorities of the spiritual plane.

At 30-plus minutes, the opening “Aquarian Moon” ends up an epic, if ultimately overwrought endeavor. Built on a somber ostinato bass pedal it spools out through lengthy statements from Ware, Shipp, Parker (arco) and an elongated duet section for ominous humming-bird bowed bass and atmospheric percussion. This latter episode narrows focus on Ibarra’s superlative skills as a rhythmic colorist with aid of shakers, gongs and other peripheral implements. She’s an iron buttery fly behind her kit, strong and tensile, but incredibly versatile in her sticks’ flight patterns across drum surfaces – an interpolated amalgam of Andrew Cyrille’s elegance and Milford Graves abilities at dancing around a direct beat. Parker locks down the ostinato and Ware’s tenor rides the wave for one final rarefied entreaty.

“Logistic” launches with Ware acapella and Shipp lies out after the tightly interlocking ensemble head, leaving the saxophonist bluster and blast away atop a roiling bass and drums whirlpool. Shipp returns to a darkly rhapsodic deconstruction of the waltz-tinged theme, stabbing mercilessly at his ivories along the way. Ware waits patiently from the wings to propel an explosive climax. The show tune standard “The Way We Were” receives a similarly commodious reading with another solitary Ware prologue, this time steeped in circularly suspirating lines that stretch out for nearly half the piece. Shipp annexes the second half, stamping resplendent chords that are by turns heart-on-sleeve lyrical and obdurately gruff. The band crams remaining disc space with a comparatively frugal (nine minutes) rendering of “Mikuro’s Blues,” another tune tethered by a reliably supple Parker vamp.

Taped the following year (specific dates aren’t supplied), the second disc’s contents document a date in Terni, Italy, with Chicago drum doyen Hamid Drake sitting in on traps. The set list is another salmagundi of Ware’s various albums, starting with a chestnut from Ware’s 1988 Silkheart release Passage to Music. Drake alters the band dynamic in intriguing fashion. His more direct and overtly propulsive style suits both Parker and the leader, but Shipp seems less at ease. “The Elder Path” gets the journey off to an auspicious start as Ware spouts legato phrases atop a choppy torrent of grim piano chords and Drake’s swirling syncopation-fueled drums. Parker finds himself a bit buried in the cooperative melee at first, but the sound engineer twiddles some knobs about two minutes in and suddenly both bassist and pianist are better oriented in the mix. At five minutes shy of a half hour, it’s another endurance test, but one better measured than the extended opening pilgrimage on the first disc. Here and elsewhere Parker and Drake combine in their limber loose-limbed style of groove-sculpting, a consensus of rhythm cobbled from near countless encounters.

The remaining pieces are more modestly sized and make for a greater assortment of fodder for the musicians. “Unknown Mansion” revolves around a congenial sparring match between Ware and Drake, the latter attenuating almost perfectly to the tenor’s ascendant arcs and even injecting a bit of funk. “Sentiment Compassion” emboldens Ware’s pathos-driven side with a ballad form ripe for the emotive urgency of his horn. Shipp’s shimmering runs gild the swathing saxophone lines as Drake shapes patterns with seemingly feather-tipped brushes. Rounding the bend with “Co Co Cana” and “Manu’s Ideal” – the former a dark rondo-style riff piece built on a Shipp-supplied chordal center, the latter another Trane-indebted ingress into beatific modal zones – the quartet takes the concert out to resounding applause. The fleeting “Lexicon” turns the calendar back to the earlier Swiss concert for another terse taste of the Ibarra-outfitted band.

Of the three, the last disc registers as the least electrifying of the batch (but that’s relative to the rest, as it’s still an engrossing listen). The chief culprit is drummer Guillermo Brown. His serviceable, if fairly conventional showing makes me wish the set’s compliers had swapped a Whit Dickey date in for this one. But seeing as Brown still holds the drum chair in the band and is also a Thirsty Ear recording artist in his own right, such a move would probably have been severely lacking in decorum. Another arguable impediment is the chosen program, one that consists completely of Ware’s interpretation of Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite.” Cloven into four lengthy segments, the version here isn’t all that radically removed from the studio interpretation released on AUM Fidelity. The basic skeletal components of the piece allow for plenty of anthemic and impassioned blowing, but compared to the diversity of Ware’s own compositions and the band’s shared familiarity with them, the suite necessarily falls a bit short.

Fidelity also isn’t quite as crisp and fulsome as the previous two concerts. The somewhat flattened sound also hinders Brown whose cymbal patter subsumes beneath Parker’s pulsing pizzicato and Ware’s ardent multiphonics in the suite’s opening section. The disc concludes with a cover of Sun Ra’s “Stargazers,” a tune ripe with cosmic overtones accessed through whirring arco bass, plucked piano innards and delicate flittering percussion. The juxtaposition of Ibarra’s fluid drums here with Brown’s more lock-step quotidian stylings across the bulk of the disc is a telling one.

At three and three-quarters hours, this set is a bargain for the budget asking price. Those familiar with Ware probably won’t need much prompting. Others not yet acquainted with his ecstatic oeuvre will find an ideal entry point herein. The experience isn’t the same as being in attendance at these shows, but the advantage lies in the ability to revisit any of the engagements on a whim. Whether Ware will move substantially beyond these earlier glories remains to be seen, but based on the brilliance of what is here we as listeners owe it to him to pay attention and find out.

By Derek Taylor

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