The knock against free jazz by those who have spent the least amount of time actually listening to it is that it is an unorganized mess. Where is the melody? For that matter, where is the beat, or any sense of structure?
David S. Ware has likely heard more than his share of such criticism, and must surely wonder how he could best respond. He puts out consistently amazing and challenging discs filled with compositions that, while free and open to allow the players to expand on ideas, are nonetheless actual pieces of music that are more than free blowing sessions without an organizational framework. Isn’t that enough?
Perhaps his new disc, Live in the World, is the true answer. For this disc—which is, surprisingly, Ware’s first live album with a group after years as a leader and live performer—is a testament to those compositions. Everything here was originally released on a studio disc, and a listen to those original versions followed by these live takes shows just how well-conceived Ware’s music can be.
Songs originally recorded as far back as 1988’s Passage to Music are recreated here. The songs sound similar to their studio counterparts, but also show themselves to be a base for further exploration and soloing in the live setting. They are the same songs at the core, but are also very different. They show, better than Ware’s studio recordings, the breadth and depth of talent of both the leader and his group.
As if making up for lost time, Ware’s live debut is a three-disc blowout taken from three different shows, each with a different drummer. His long-time sidemen, pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, are constant throughout, but the person filling the drummer’s chair changes from disc to disc.
The first disc features the earliest recording, a 1998 show in Chiasso, Switzerland, with Susie Ibarra on drums. Much of the material comes, fittingly enough, from Ware’s 1998 Columbia Records debut, Go See the World. In fact, that show takes up not only the entirety of the first disc, but is used for bonus tracks that round out the second and third discs as well. It finds the quartet playing a muscular set of challenging but relatively straight-forward songs, including a largely unrecognizable take on the standard “The Way We Were” that begins with Ware fully exploring the boundaries of the song for more than nine minutes before Shipp’s piano leads the rest of the band in to state the theme.
The second disc is the set’s best, largely thanks to the authoritative drumming of Hamid Drake, who joined the band for a handful of 2003 dates, including this one in Terni, Italy. The tracklist is the set’s most eclectic, drawing on five different albums over a period of eight years. From “Elder’s Path” on Passage to Music through “Manu’s Ideal” on 1996’s Oblations and Blessings (a tune given an interesting reading on Shipp, Parker, and Guillero E. Brown’s The Trio Plays Ware disc from last year on which, as you may have guessed, the rhythm section goes it alone), the group tears through a cross section of some of Ware’s best work. Drake is a bit more aggressive and less expressionistic than Ibarra, and the result is a more energetic, driving set. For comparison, “Lexicon”, a Go See the World track from the same set as the first disc, rounds out disc two.
If the second disc is the best, the third is perhaps the most impressive. It contains the quartet’s take on Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite. The group’s original recording was nearly double the length of Rollins’ original, and this live version, recorded in Milano, Italy, in 2003 with current quartet drummer Guillermo E. Brown behind the kit, is double that again. It is a true example of this phenomenally talented group using a known composition as a jumping off point.
In fact, that Freedom Suite performance neatly summarizes this entire collection and its value as a document of Ware’s tremendous skills, while at the same time finally putting a dagger in the heart of the arguments about the lack of compositional skill of creative musicians. Much as Rollins’ suite is disassembled, augmented, and recreated as a whole that reflects, but in no way colors within the lines of, the original composition, so too do these live reinterpretations of Ware’s own compositions show the evolving creativity of his side players, while at the same time testifying to the skillful hand of their creator.