Saxophonist David S. Ware, pianist Cooper-Moore, bassist William Parker and drummer Muhammad Ali recorded together for the first time in late 2010. Dubbing themselves Planetary Unknown, their eponymous album was unleashed in 2011 to substantial acclaim within the jazz press. It embodied everything that fans of free jazz love about the genre: the fire, the soul, the challenges, the pure spontaneity. It was also something of a surprise to jazz aficionados that this was the first time all four of these dudes ever got together for some jamming. Ware and Cooper-Moore hadn’t worked together in over thirty years and it had been almost that long since Ali had recorded anything at all. Yet with the four of them together in a room, the sparks flew. Too easily, in fact. It happened so easily that they had to take this show on the road. Without relying on any material from their studio album (how could they?), Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 brings us the sound of Planetary Unknown letting it rip in front of a very appreciative Austrian crowd. Just as it was in the studio, the lines of communication were wide open for these four guys and more than an hour’s worth of stuff just poured out. As is the case with many a live jazz album, it probably can’t compare to actually being there and witnessing the event. But we’ll take what we can get when it comes to documenting Planetary Unknown. Groups like this just don’t happen every day.
No one is truly in charge of Planetary Unknown, but Ware and Cooper-Moore are the ones who will naturally steal your attention most of the time – Ware because of his Coltranesque leads that push ruthlessly through the air and Cooper-Moore because of his Ceil Taylor-like approach to pounding every one of his piano keys into the next century. Muhammad Ali continues to aggressively smack the skins in a way that belies his 76 years of age. Parker tends to get buried in the mix, but that’s one guy in which you can place your rhythmic trust. He’s played on almost everyone’s albums, to say nothing of his own discography. Song titles are just a formality here on “Precessional 1”, “Precessional 2”, and “Precessional 3”. The first one lasts for more than thirty minutes.
Not that these pieces are faceless or undistinguishable from one another. Free jazz proponents will always argue for each track’s unique identity, but it’s more important to pick up on the obvious changes. Planetary Unknown’s sound is not a consistent barrage of noise. The first “Precessional” may start out sounding like one, but it eventually finds its own way to a much quieter place where the guys give Parker a chance to solo. The second “Precessional” starts off in a far, far less assuming manner followed by an ascension only measurable in baby steps. The third track follows a similar pattern that starts off with Parker bowing his instrument. Ware uses this as an introduction to, once again, take his sweet timing to take flight. Cooper-Moore’s playing becomes noticeably more tonal, morphing from Cecil Taylor to Keith Jarrett. But you know they can’t let things end this way. Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 ends the way it began; as a racket.
Just like many of David S. Ware’s recent recordings, this album is best appreciated when you sit down and take full stock of what’s going on. If you put it on and go to do something else, it will fly in one ear and out the other. You really have to pay attention to what each member is doing, recognize their individual worth and imagine that you are there in the audience. That’s not easy, I know. But when was free jazz ever easy? Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 is worth the heavy lifting, it’s just up to you whether or not to start the process.