David S. Ware, a major saxophonist from the 1970s to the present day, passed away at the age of 62 earlier this month, due to complications related to a recent kidney transplant. His sound was as big as anyone's, just as his diversity of approaches to his instrument was rare for a practitioner of any genre, in or outside of jazz.
The loss of his presence will be even more keenly felt considering that many of Ware's most recent recordings were among his strongest. As we are talking about an artist who could write for string ensemble, toss out synth-assisted congo grooves to beat anyone, play ballads beautifully, and also push his instrument to the experimental limit, there's simply no telling what he might have still been able to produce had his health held out longer. In the same spirit of his yogic, meditative soul, however, we can be grateful – and more than content – with the companionship of the music that Ware leaves behind.
All saxophone improvisers who come after John Coltrane work at least partly in that shadow, but one of Ware's awe-inspiring accomplishments was the way he grafted the full-bore intensity of late Coltrane – those big ensemble bands with multiple drummers and reed players – onto a classic drums/bass/piano/sax quartet setting. Thus, some of the best Ware quartet records (try Wisdom of Uncertainty and Renunciation) have a modal, tuneful blues feel that may call to mind Coltrane's Crescent, but also the fiery power that flows from the freer, heroic experiments of the later Coltrane years (as well as from the post-Ayler, post-Cecil Taylor radicals). The critic Gary Giddins once made waves by declaring the late Ware Quartet "the best small band in jazz today." He wasn't wrong.
Though he was not well known (or often recorded) as a leader until the 1990s, Ware's apprenticeship and early professional career brought him into contact with many jazz greats. His first appearance on a (legitimate) recording comes as part of the Cecil Taylor Unit, back in 1976 (on Dark to Themselves, which, though not available on Rhapsody, is worth searching for). The New York Times obit of Ware is crucial reading in particular for the reflections of Sonny Rollins, who mentored the teenage Ware and booked the young musician's first free-jazz group of note to open for him at the Village Vanguard. (Ware would reinterpret Rollins' "Freedom Suite" live and in the studio.)
From there, the bands Ware led with authority simply had some of the best modern and free jazz players you could hope to hear. Drummers – many of them fine and distinct, cycled in and out of the quartet. (Listen for Hamid Drake's hyperactive swing and tumult in "Co Co Cana," from a live date that's essential in full, or Susie Ibarra's more skittering, texturally rich approach in "Utopic.") But the key partners in the Classic Ware Quartet were William Parker's thumping presence on bass and the progressive pianism of Matthew Shipp. You can hear Shipp maturing album by album, in Ware's presence, from the brittle assaults of Acclimation to the subtle synth-work on the Corridors & Parallels album. (A remembrance from the pianist in Ware's best-known quartet has also been posted at the Daily Beast.)
And if you're skeptical regarding the presence of traditional chops in a musician heralded as a free-jazz heavyweight, look no further than Ware's handling of "Tenderly" and "Autumn Leaves." Ware's catalog on Rhapsody is full of these boundary-busting surprises. All that's left is the listening -- and a hearty RIP.