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David S. Ware String Ensemble - Threads

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Artist: David S. Ware String Ensemble

Album: Threads

Label: Thirsty Ear

Review date: Nov. 4, 2003

Right off the bat, David Ware’s new album feels different. William Parker’s luscious bowed bass starts the proceedings, signaling that bows, not reeds or hammers, be the driving force behind this record dominate. Strings are, not surprisingly, everywhere on Threads, with Ware’s normal quartet of Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Guillermo E Brown augmented by violist extraordinaire Mat Maneri and violinist David Bernard Roumain.

The most surprising discovery is Ware’s relative absence on his own record. For much of the album he’s on the sidelines, providing the compositional structure for the ensemble to follow. And when he does pick up his horn, his playing seems just a bit restrained. On “Weave I” and “Weave II,” accompanied solely by Brown’s drumming, Ware shows off just a fraction of his normal free-blowing ways. These solos skitter around simple melodic figures, free in an Ornette Coleman kind of way – expressive and expansive, but lacking the full-out skronk of the majority of his oeuvre. His only other appearance on saxophone, the album opening “Ananda Rotation,” shows similar soloing tendencies, this time accompanied by the rest of the band. Equal parts texture and melody, Ware’s limited contributions leave plenty of space for the sonic capabilities of Parker, Roumain, and Maneri, and presages the album’s overriding feeling of restraint. Occasionally, he’ll confront one of the three and provoke them towards a new timbral level, but as a whole, his playing is subordinate to his bowed companions.

Given the chance to lead, Maneri and Roumain prove to be perfectly suited for Ware’s subtle ideas. Maneri seems to mostly ditch his normal microtonalities and as a result his style becomes very similar to Roumain’s. They both like to cut away at tremolo chords, flowing harmonics, sustained lyric lines, and the occasional virtuosic run up the fingerboard. The one downside to their similarities is the two often get lost either in each other’s sounds. Maneri seems to provide more ideas than Roumain, but it’s often difficult to tell. On the low end, William Parker is his normal solid self, providing lovely counterpoints both inside and beyond his basslines.

I can’t quite figure out what Matthew Shipp is trying to contribute, though. Instead of his normal piano, Shipp is on a Korg Triton Pro X synthesizer using mostly string settings. The issue is that natural and artificial string sounds just don’t mix. Acoustic instruments are inherently rich, full of overtones, variations in color, and innumerable sound possibilities. Shipp’s Korg has but one or two, and consequently sounds thin and artificial while simultaneously obscuring the sound of Maneri’s viola and Roumain’s violin. What is he getting at? Did he feel that a piano would be inadequate for the subtlety of Ware’s arrangements? Or maybe he wanted to get into the string spirit of the record? Perhaps this is the result of collaborating with a few too many hip hop and electronica people? It might not even have been his own decision. Whatever the reasoning may be, his instrument selection detracts from much of what would otherwise be a very good record. Only on the ostinato-laden “Sufic Passages” where he lays off the string settings does Shipp’s Korg work.

This leads us to a greater dilemma about the future of jazz, especially as envisioned by Thirsty Ear and Blue Series artistic director Matthew Shipp. Will the next few years hold an explosion in a new type of fusion, this time with hip hop and electronica? A new direction in the merging of electronics with acoustic instruments? Will skronk and fire be jettisoned in favor of a more fluid, relaxed style? Does jazz have room for DJing and programmed beats? The latest few Blue Series releases seem to embrace these very trends, with their forthcoming albums almost having more electronica names than jazz ones. I only hope that they find a way to make their fusion sound organic, to make the electronic and acoustic voices speak as one unified whole.

And therein lies the problem with Threads. While the playing is for the most part exemplary, there is too much of a divide between Shipp and his comrades, between the synthetic and the natural, between the Sweet ‘n’ Low and the regular sugar. But then again, new styles take time to develop; this might just be a step down that path.

By Dan Ruccia

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