Celebrating David S. Ware (1949-2012)

“The manner in which you’re playing equals a spiritual reality,” said saxophonist David S. Ware, sitting in chair, holding his horn, in “A World of Sound,” a short film directed by Amine Kouider for the David Lynch Foundation.

Ware, who died on Thursday in New Brunswick, N.J. at 62, worked that equation out to persuasive and uplifting ends throughout his career. A big man who could produce an immense sound, Ware first gained recognition in the 1970s during Manhattan’s loft-jazz scene, flirted with a more widespread attention in the 1990s, and ended up an eminence for a resurgent free-jazz community. An email from Steven Joerg, Ware’s manager and longtime record producer confirmed late last week that Ware succumbed to complications from his 2009 kidney transplant at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

David Spencer Ware was born in Plainfield, N.J., on Nov. 7, 1949, and grew up in nearby Scotch Plains. By his early teens, already playing saxophone, he grew entranced with jazz through visits to Manhattan clubs. He paid special attention to the music of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. While still in junior high school, Ware established a relationship with Rollins, who mentored him not just in music, but also about yoga philosophy and the connection between spiritual and musical practices. “I don’t want to sound self-serving,” Rollins told writer Steve Dollar for a 1998 cover story in Jazziz magazine, “But I heard some of me in his playing.” Never derivative, Ware did manage to evoke both the bite of Rollins’s sound and a similar love of invention via motif and extrapolation from a melody. (Like Rollins, he could make something mystical from even the seemingly banal: His 1998 recording, Go See the World, included a nearly 15-minute version of “The Way We Were.”) John Coltrane’s questing sound, not to mention Ben Webster’s free-swinging swagger or Albert Ayler’s gritty tone, were all embedded in Ware’s playing, too, without ever a whiff of mimicry or tribute. Ware studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late 1960s. With pianist Cooper-Moore and the drummer Marc Edwards, he formed the jazz group Apogee. In 1973, Rollins invited Apogee to open for him at the Village Vanguard. “I got a lot of mean looks from my fans in the club,” Rollins told Ben Ratliff for an obituary in The New York Times.

Ware had a formative stint in the Cecil Taylor Unit (he’s on Taylor’s 1974 recording, Dark Unto Themselves). His presence a decade later in drummer Andrew Cyrille’s band, Maono, was also influential for him, he said in interviews. Ware’s own band concept was as innovative and influential as his sound. During the 1990s, when the New York free-jazz scene experienced a resurgence partly due to the Vision Festival, Ware’s quartet emerged as something of a supergroup on the scene. The group, which Ware convened from 1989 through 2007, featured pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker and a succession of drummers: Marc Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra and Guillermo E. Brown. (A good primer on that band’s evolution is 2005’s 3-CD In The World.)

In an interview with Patrick Jarenwattanon for NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” after Ware’s passing, Shipp called the experience of playing with Ware “a dream” explaining:

To be able to play with a conceptualist who understands the whole tenor tradition but who had the vision to pursue a very focused and original quartet concept was a tremendous experience…. David was a minimalist and a maximist at the same time. I know no one else I can say that about — he had his own unique sound with tremendous depth, soul, and his music has a deep compassion in it.

And Shipp shed some light on Ware, the man:

David was a man of tremendous paradox, which added to his mystery: a peace-loving pacifist who had a love for and collection of firearms. He loved cars and speeding in cars. He had a tremendous sense of humor, but was so focused on who he was in the music — what his vision was — one of the most austere artists I’ve ever known. He never had any doubt about who he was and what he should be doing in the music, and he traveled a straight line with no confusion to his equation. I think of David as a great iconoclast in the tradition of other iconoclasts like Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk or anyone who pursues a personal vision to the end.

Ware’s music frequently attracted attention beyond the free-jazz scene. His 1995 album Cryptology received the lead review slot in Rolling Stone magazine. Two more recent albums were featured on the Pitchfork wesbite. In 1997, while serving in an A&R capacity at Columbia Records, saxophonist Branford Marsalis signed Ware to the label, which led to two Columbia releases: Go See the World And Surrendered. “I’m not hooking him up,” Marsalis said at the time. “He’s hooking us all up.”

Beginning in 1995, Ware’s music was championed by Steven Joerg, whose Brooklyn, New York-based Aum Fidelity label released 10 albums of his music. Ware developed kidney failure in the late 1990s and maintained his health via self-administered dialysis for nearly a decade. In 2009, after an appeal from Joerg to fans for an organ donor, Laura Mehr, an artist whose husband loved Ware’s music, offered hers. If that transplant offered Ware a few years longer lease on life, it brought listeners yet more profoundly beautiful music. Saturnian Solo Saxophones, Vol. 1, recorded just five months after the transplant, is as personal a statement as Ware ever made. And Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011, recorded at his final performance in Austria last summer, showcases him leading yet another wondrous all-star quartet, with bassist William Parker, pianist Cooper Moore and drummer Muhammad Ali. You can here “Precessional 3” from that album here.

Image: David S. Ware/ David Katzenstein

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