Although he was active in the ‘70s New York loft scene, David S. Ware cemented his international reputation as a heavyweight saxophonist through a series of recordings, issued between 1992 and 2006, that featured a truly classic quartet: William Parker on bass, Matthew Shipp piano, and first Marc Edwards, then Whit Dickey, Susie lbarra, and finally Guilermo E. Brown on drums.
Ware suffered from kidney disease at the age of 60, underwent successful kidney transplantation in 2009, and then made a remarkable return to work. The old quartet was disbanded when Shipp moved on to focus on his own projects, but a new venture teamed Ware and Parker with drummer Warren Smith. This unit shaped up nicely on the albums ‘Shakti’ (2008, also featuring guitarist Joe Morris) and ‘Onecept’ (2010), but ‘Planetary Unknown’ marks the début of yet another new quartet, which Ware hopes will be an ongoing concern. William Parker remains Ware’s invaluable right-hand man, generating from his double bass all the energy and momentum required to match the saxophonist in full flight, and enriching Ware’s compositions with emotional intensity.
One might attribute the short-term tenancy of the drum seat in Ware’s ‘90s quartet to the rigours of playing alongside such an imposing, and often imposingly percussive bassist. Muhammad Ali might be Parker’s best match yet. Ali has hitherto been best known by association with Albert Ayler, since he contributed to the 1969 sessions that yielded Ayler’s ‘Music is the Healing Force of the Universe’ and ‘The Last Album’. He’s also been cast unfairly into the shadow of his brother Rashied’s association with John Coltrane, particularly on the epochal ‘Interstellar Space’ duets. Muhammad’s own career has been poorly represented on record, despite his recording consistently, if not prolifically, for independents that invariably went soon out of print, and his long association with saxophonist Frank Wright. This album finally does the man some justice, and will hopefully be just the first step in a renaissance to equal that of his peer, the veteran bassist Henry Grimes. As with Grimes’, Ali’s skills are revealed here to be in rude health. He marries the vitality of players many years younger with the authority and lightly worn gravitas of experience.
The presence of pianist Cooper-Moore is just as significant. His first experience was gained alongside David S. Ware and drummer Marc Edwards in the trio Apogee, back in 1970, but he retired from performance in the early 80s, reportedly smashing and torching his piano in disaffection. He then worked for a while as an educator through music, and took to instrument making. When he performed it was to accompany dance or theatre. When Cooper-Moore returned to jazz in the early ‘90s, it was as a member of William Parker’s In Order to Survive. Now he occasionally crops up in unexpected contexts, such as on a favourite album of mine by Talibam!, ‘Ordination of the Globetrotting Conscripts’ (2007), on which he plays his self-made ‘diddley-bo’, mouth-bow, and ‘twanger’. He leads a trio with Tom Abbs and Chad Taylor called Triptych Myth, and is also the organist in William Parker’s Organ Quartet, which was documented last year on the outstanding ‘Uncle Joe’s Spirit House’ (Centering Records).
Given the back-story of these four master musicians, ‘Planetary Unknown’ carries a heavy weight of expectation. It gives us seven new co-composed pieces fleshed out through improvisation, starting with a 22 minute epic, “Passage Wudang”, which is gratifyingly intense at first, in the manner of Ware’s most uncompromising work.
Cooper-Moore squares up to Ware’s bellicosity with a blocky, angular attack not unlike Matthew Shipp’s. But as the track stretches out, Cooper-More becomes more fluid, lyrical, and almost stately. This and the closing piece are the only ones that conform to Ware’s already patented style. With Cooper-Moore and Ali aboard, the quartet sounds looser than you might expect, sometimes closer in spirit to European free music than America’s ‘new thing’, albeit soul and gospel are deeprooted in its constitution.
At the fifteen minute mark, “Passage Wudang” takes a beguilingly sensitive turn, and piano bass and drums play the piece out as a pastorale. Ware returns only to sign the piece off, before getting the following “Shift” under way in tandem with Ali. It’s a short, unclassifiable piece with the quartet playing as if at odds, yet fitting together with organic seamlessness.
On the following duet with Ali, “Duality is One”, the veteran drummer is almost insouciantly free: as Ware rips into a rapid series of variations on the melody Ali keeps the rhythm buoyant and elastic, effectively tempering the saxophonist’s intensity.
For the next three tracks Ware switches from Tenor to sopranino, his tone more honeyed on the lighter horn than on past outings. Cooper-Moore and Ware swap searching, luminous solos on “Divination”, before the rhythm section rejoin. Ali is on brushes throughout, while Parker plucks full, plummy notes from the bass and Cooper-Moore’s piano darts to refract the sopranino’s switches and turns.
There’s a gentleness at play here that’s new to Ware’s recorded output. This is particularly evident on the brief “Crystal Palace” and the following “Divination Unfathomable”. Parker plays deeply resonant bowed bass here, drawing Ware into some particularly searching lines. Midway through “Divination Unfathomable” Ware breaks into flurries of circular breathing, Cooper-Moore responds with rapid ebbs and flows of pianism, and Parker and Ali bow and brush up a minor storm.
Ware switches to stritch (straight alto) for the closing “Ancestry Supramental”, which starts bright and uptempo, underpinned by Parker’s nimble fingering, only to develop into an exhilarating, tumultuous give-and-take punctuated by brief percussive flurries, everyone holding their agitation in check until just the right time to throw down. It’s magnificent, heady stuff.
With each successive release David S. Ware expresses something new within a body of work that, superficially at least, has a fairly narrow focus. With a trio of peers at his side he seems set to continue the tradition.
This review was first published by the Jazz Mann in September 2011.