Cutting David S. Ware Loose: A Free-Jazz Memorial

William Parker conducts during a memorial for David S. Ware/all photos by Enid Farber

Much like honest religion, improvised music lends itself to community cohesion, spiritual seeking and openness of mind. Much like honest religion, it is easy to caricature and, given the right facility, to mimic, but hard to deny when confronted with the real thing.

Saxophonist David S. Ware, who died at 62 on October 18, was catalyst for moment upon moment of such recognition, if even revelation. A big man who could produce an immense sound, Ware first gained recognition in the 1970s during Manhattan’s loft-jazz scene, flirted with more widespread attention in the 1990s, and ended up an eminence for a resurgent free-jazz community. His burly tone, his focused pursuit each time he worked a melodic figure or simple groove into something deeper, something that squealed and blurted and soared along an arc far more elusive than simple song and yet nearly always made melodic sense, the command with which he led his groups to find gloriously fractured paths toward completeness—all this was the sort of stuff that makes for sturdy faith. And freely improvised music of the meaningful sort, while being many other things too, is always an act of faith.

So the faithful came out in force on Monday night, mostly filling Manhattan’s St. Peter’s Church, a stark and spare yet comforting space of angular red oak and steel set within a concrete wedge, which has frequently served as a concert hall and memorial site for jazz’s ranks. Many faces were familiar from, say, the annual Vision Festival, at which Ware had been a leading light, especially those of musicians, lots of them. A ring of violinists and violists framed the audience, awaiting their cue for an opening piece, composed by William Parker, the longtime bassist in Ware’s quartet.

A dozen of them played sweetly voiced long tones at first, while alto saxophonist Rob Brown and pianist Eri Yamamoto sounded out three-note phrases, with Parker conducting. Parker’s two-part piece, “Invocation/Prayer,” first found Fay Victor singing high in her range and with direct phrasing about a “song coming up again,” as Parker gently beat a large bass drum with mallets. The string part grew more urgent and layered but still carried an overriding sense of uplift. Soon Victor was singing full-throated, embellishing her phrases like blues, ending with the lyric “a saint he’ll be.” This was now a hymn, flecked with Ellington’s influence, yet it was also a Native American drum circle, Parker’s subtle manipulations of pitch and rhythm from his round drumhead leading the song.

As befits such a memorial there were spoken tributes, brief but with impact. Setsuko Ware, the saxophonist’s widow, spoke of their 30 years together and of the saxophonist’s experience of “music as a sacred experience.” Steven Joerg, who worked with Ware for nearly 18 years and produced 14 of his recordings, described how this imposing figure he sought out backstage turned out to the warm-hearted man with a disarming smile and infectious laugh who “quite literally changed my life.” Poet Steve Dalachinsky‘s verses included this line: “His sound wandered around the present as if it never existed.” Pianist Matthew Shipp, who recorded and toured with Ware for 16 years, explained how Ware formed an important bridge, last of a breed as well as first of his kind. And he marveled at Ware’s self-knowledge and focus. “He know who he was, why he was here, and precisely what he wanted to do with his music,” Shipp said.

Singer Fay Victor gets emotional (Rob Brown, at left)

Ware’s music could be tender as a hymn or ballad—in fact he favored both forms at times—or furious in its intensity. It could be both within a single song. And the music at this memorial embraced these extremes.

Daniel Carter played some piano but mostly focused on saxophone, in trio with bassist Joe Morris and drummer Andrew Cyrille. The music rode pulses and voiced blues cries until Carter worked into a final, soft-voiced frenzy of overtones. Saxophonist Darius Jones, the youngest of the musicians to perform, and drummer Muhammad Ali, the oldest, made the most physically reverberant sounds. Ali shouted out over his clattering swing and Jones, whose grandfathers were both Pentecostal preachers, pretty much testified in searing fashion.

Cooper Moore, who had played piano in Ware’s earliest quartet, and who builds original instruments, played solo on a harp of his own design that looked as if ripped from a piano’s soundboard. He essayed a few Ware themes, sounding at moments like a kora, then a pipa, then a qanun. He slid in and out of a lilting Caribbean beat, plucked out riveting single note figures, all of which came like a gentle, calming wash. Joe Morris, now on guitar, played “Violet,” a piece he said he’d long imagined Ware performing, in duet with drummer Warren Smith. Punctuated mostly by Smith’s chiming triangle and soft mallet beats, and by the sanctuary fountain’s gentle gurgle, Morris worked in and out of what seemed like a single meditative theme. (Earlier, he’d spoken of the “spiritual connection that David spent his life working on and tried to convey to all of us.”)

Drummer Muhammad Ali shouts praise for Ware

The final live performance was by the members of the last of Ware’s quartets: bassist Parker, pianist Shipp and drummer Guillermo Brown. They played two Ware pieces, “Godspelized” and “Sentient Compassion,” as an unbroken unity. Parker mostly bowed his bass. Shipp focused mainly on chords. Brown alternated between mallet and sticks. More than any single improvisation, the three seemed bent on coveying the promise of these forms, on evoking Ware’s brilliance for using simplicity as a template for nuanced and surprising expression. At times, it was as if they were leaving space for Ware. A few final bowed overtones from Parker suggested Ware’s knowing squeal.

Earlier, Setsuko Ware had said, “If you listen to the music you will feel, overwhelmingly, his presence.” Finally, we did hear and see Ware, as captured toward the end of his life by filmmaker Amine Kouider, and projected on the sanctuary’s wall. He played blindingly fast, skittering figures on a sopranino saxophone pointed right at us. He settled into a more lyrical phrase here and there, altering pitch to suggest a double-reed or repeating a note to focus solely on tone. He was seated in his living room. He wore an gold-embroidered skullcap. Brow furrowed, eyes shut, nostrils flaring (often in circular breath), fingers forming blurs, he went on in ways that tested concentration and then rewarded the effort. When he was through, he didn’t open his eyes. He licked his lips, ready for more.

You can find my earlier post on Ware’s life and legacy here. And I welcome your impressions and reminiscences.

Images/ Enid Farber, except for David S. Ware/Christian Ducasse

Ware in Paris, France, 2005/photo by Christian Ducasse

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