“First of all I would like it to be clearly understood that I am in no way renouncing the work of the David S. Ware Quartet,” the bandleader explains in his brief liner-notes essay for Renunciation, a live album capturing his celebrated four-piece’s final concert performance. The renunciation of which he speaks is a spiritual epiphany during which one experiences “individuality as a non-doer” by “witnessing” one’s self from outside of one’s self. This renunciation is an out-of-body experience during which, “The SELF stands alone, whole unto itself, totally uninvolved in relativity.” From this spiritual disengagement springs “self-realization, cosmic consciousness, or enlightenment.” Think of Ware’s renunciation as a self-contained dialectic in which one attains to a higher plane of knowledge by weighing one’s actions in light of the observations of an imagined other, whose surrogate is the non-doing, disembodied, “renunciated” self. Better yet, think of this renunciation as the point at which one becomes so enlightened as to be capable of maintaining a system of individual spiritual checks and balances.
And let’s stick with this governmental image, because Ware’s best group recordings epitomize well-regulated, democratic improvisation. Although he came of age playing alongside cerebral, chaotic jazzmen like Cecil Taylor and Andrew Cyrille in the late 1970s, Ware has long favored coherence (when compared to other free-form musicians, at least) and taut group dynamics when working as a leader. Even when a honking Ware and his stabbing, pounding and plucking sidemen summon with their visceral playing a volcanic apocalypse, they spew their lava and molten brimstone in unison. While most free players sought throughout the 1980s and 1990s to test abstraction’s limits, Ware channeled the righteous, unified cacophony of post-Meditations Coltrane and spiced that aesthetic up with labyrinthine rhythmic foundations.
When his Quartet—a group consisting of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker and a rotating cast of drummers (Guillermo E. Brown plays on this album)—disbanded after the June 2006 Vision Festival, the contemporary jazz community lost both Ware’s definitive unit and one of the only outfits still making a strong case for the relevance of shrieking, 1960s Impulse!-style fire music. The Quartet played their clamorous music with such purpose and conviction that they were even given mainstream exposure in the late ‘90s, releasing a handful of albums for Columbia. Renunciation will sit well with fans of these records, as it documents the ease with which Ware and his bandmates alchemized difficult music into beautiful music
“Mikuro’s Blues”, a highlight from 1998’s major-label offering Go See the World, figures into the middle of the Quartet’s farewell set. One of Ware’s best and most accessible compositions, this piece hearkens to Coltrane’s classic four-piece band. Parker lays down a nimble walking bass line that’s almost as infectious as Jimmy Garrison’s four-note A Love Supreme motif (really!), while Shipp chimes in with supple McCoy Tyner-like harmonies. Ware’s saxophone kicks with a rawer timbre than Coltrane’s, but, like Trane, he wails along with his final destination always in mind. Few jazz compositions from the last decade register so highly on so many different scales.
More Coltrane-isms abound in “Ganesh Sound” and its reprise. Here the Quartet recall the barline-liberated outcries of Coltrane’s late period, drums and bass tumbling slowly over one another while Shipp anchors the song with simple, repetitive chords. Ware riffs steadily over Shipp and bursts out of the groove when he sees fit, navigating between order and disarray. Ware demonstrates his range most vividly during the first part of the album’s centerpiece, “Renunciation Suite”. Playing solo, he stretches rich melodies into argumentative squeals. Once he says his peace, Shipp leads Parker and Brown through rocky, angular passages that swing, but just barely. This exchange continues for over 10 minutes, after which all four men bludgeon their audience in rapturous unison. Like great shoegaze or noise-rock, “Renunciation Suite” swamps the pretty/ugly divide in a glorious haze.
Closer “Saturnian” is equally violent, suggesting that Ware wanted his band to go out on a note of unbounded ecstasy. Of course, unbounded ecstasy is one of the most difficult emotions to convey to listeners, as no words or forms can deliver it fully. And frankly, Ware’s Quartet always trafficked too heavily in these intangibles—all of their records, including this one, are too kinetic to ingest in a single sitting. God bless ‘em, though, for trying to communicate the incommunicable, for encouraging us to push beyond the confines of the familiar so that we might see ourselves more fully and truly.