When David S. Ware passed away in October of 2012, the world lost a sound it’s never getting back again. That sound was revolutionary, it was a tough sound, a punk-jazz sound that asks a lot of questions and can’t wait around for answers. Ware’s sax tone was a raspy, ragged, haaard-blowing, Ayler-ish thing that frequently produced a kind of fear – fear that the man was gonna explode, he’s blowing so hard. That concern is palpable on this live concert recording, Théâtre Garonne, 2008, the latest issue from the David S. Ware Archive Series on the ever-righteous Aum Fidelity label. The set showcases the fact that Ware had already been suffering the strains of the illness that eventually killed him.
Ware here is giving his all, as a kind of final statement, perhaps. Whatever the case, he goes out expressing joy, and that joy permeates these performances. He also seems determined to communicate with his audience, proffering a freely improvised and quite noisy jazz that relies heavily on an old-school thing called melody. And not just any old melody, but in particular ones like the main theme as heard over the course of the first track, “Crossing Samsara, Part 1” and its “Part 2” reconfiguration. As on all of the album’s pieces, the quartet jabs out a Monkish, bopping theme that’s really more like a heavy rock riff, which quickly explodes in all directions.
Though the pieces expand into enormously complex sonic vistas, that nice little theme is stated very briefly, then all hell breaks loose, as if the band is impatiently warming us up before getting to the real message, the real meat of the matter, which is what a theme implies, suggests, triggers and maybe ought to be musically argued with. Right out the gate, Ware’s tone is already indicative of a pent-up, well, not rage but passion. And his passion is not pretty, it’s rough and raw and chainsaw-edged. He and his clan blast that theme to atomic bits; they’re a bad bunch, no pussyfooting. Drummer Warren Smith’s rolling, rattling toms feel their way across the unison-played theme, Ware’s rasping sax and William Parker’s double bass like spiderwebbing across guitarist Joe Morris’ mildly abstruse flights of fancy. If these three guys are roughly playing “tonal,” or in the same key, it matters not, as these initially wild sax/bass/guitar blasts are relatively short and all briskly return to the theme.
Crossing Samsara, Part 2
The theme is Ware’s handy devise to help listeners make sense of this densely interwoven improvised music. With “Crossing Samsara, Part 2” we have a remelodicized variation on the theme, briefly played in the same rhythm, then here quickly comes Ware’s next bullfrog-butterfly sax solo: His grinding tone, somewhat akin to the Tunisian Mizwid reed instrument’s, sears through and chews up phrases deriving out of the theme, spraying a multitude of images and emotional terrains: He blows like water rushing, a plant uncoiling, a dog chasing a ball, a cat chewing a rat.
These truly probing musicians’ prodigious techniques aid enormously in their search for aural nirvana. Morris’ particle-smashing “Part 2” guitar solo stretches out in astounding flights across the neck of the guitar, creating a centrifugal force as dizzying lights spin ‘round our heads. Interesting, too, how his clean tone – dry, almost flat, no distracting effects — directs attention to the theme of the piece, little bits of it, anyway. Clean lines from especially the guitar and sometimes the sax work to emphasize the melody in Ware’s pieces, which had been obscured somewhat in his past work with pianists such as Matthew Shipp.
As heard in “Durga,” this springboarding of heavy-duty spontaneous jazz squawking off supremely melodic thematic material (it’s “rhythmelodic,” in Ware’s terminology) graces the entire set with a balancing, even accessible feel. There is a wonderful visuality in Ware’s solo playing on this one: He takes us down to the river. When “Reflection”’s reedy opening sax solo pokes its pointy head in, a low-key guitar bit looks over its shoulder in curiosity, like, What’s up? Like the huge hum of an old turbo-prop plane, Ware’s split toned sax hovers in sustained drones, which he discovered in the course of his improvisation. In “Namah,” an opening duo duet is all tiny parts, skittering bass over rolling, quiet drums, then guitar chords that slant over Ware’s beefy sax walls in lacy latticework. And here comes the theme clearly back in, little shards of it scattered over the rest.
It’d be hard to overemphasize the overall mental and physical effect of Ware’s “rhythmelodic” compositions, which turn what will facilely be heard as a massive mountain of shrieking free jazz into what it’s possible to perceive as real, true songs, albeit of a super-modernized shape and size.
David S. Ware, Live in Vilnius, 2010. With Willliam Parker on bass, Matthew Shipp on piano, and Guillermo E. Brown on drums
John Payne is Music Critic at Riot Material. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songsand editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, London).