This one was always destined to raise eyebrows. Imagine Motorhead announcing the release of an album of Burt Bacharach covers. Or Wolf Eyes collaborating with Enya. Some things just seem a little improbable, slightly provocative, not what was expected.
That’s almost the vibe given off by David S. Ware’s release of an album exclusively devoted to ballads. After 30 years on the free jazz scene, tenor man Ware has carved himself a reputation as a firebrand, a tumultuous, uncompromising player, proudly carrying the baton of intense Fire Music once held by titans such as Coltrane and Ayler — a reputation cemented by scorching documents like last year’s triple live CD Live in the World. Suffice to say, Ware and his associates can — and do — lose themselves in a torrent of coruscating, high energy improvisation as easily and with as much regularity as you or I might sit down to watch a soap opera.
So why the change of direction? The story goes that the David S. Ware Quartet — comprising long-term heavyweight collaborators bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp, plus the newest recruit to the revolving drum-stool, Guillermo E. Brown — returned from a European tour in 1999, eager to capture the energy they’d been whipping up on stage and scheduled a recording session for the day after their return, only to find themselves too exhausted to recreate the blistering high energy jazz of their live shows. Instead, they settled on a more contemplative template and ended up recording a unique session of ballads — a session unlike any Ware has ever recorded before or any he is likely to record again.
This being Ware, though, it’s worth taking a moment to refine just exactly what is meant by the word ‘ballad’. There are no standards included here, no smooth tunes, no mellow dinner-jazz tinkles. This is still the heaviest of free jazz, merely slowed down a couple of notches and given room to stretch out and breathe. Perhaps most striking is the quartet’s absolute refusal to allow itself to become involved with any kind of recognisable rhythm or tempo. For the duration of this CD (seven lengthy tracks over 70 minutes), the band constantly skirts the fringes of swing, threatening at any moment to tip into the groove but always — except for the very briefest gospel-tinged piano vamp in “Gospellized” — managing to hold back, resist and remain in the open-spaces of free-jazz improvisation.
It’s a tantalising, exhilarating and daring balancing act, only made possible by the telepathic connections that have developed between these very serious musicians. These cats are utterly committed to the continuance and the spiritual importance of free-jazz as the love of the moment, the spontaneous communion of man to man, man to creator, moment to moment. There is nothing even remotely frivolous about this music. To quote the title of author and photographer Val Wilmer’s seminal work on free jazz, this really is “as serious as your life”.
Perhaps the closest point of reference for what Ware is trying to do here is Albert Ayler’s reconfigured ballad “Angels”, an outpouring of pure emotional and spiritual expression that manages to be passionate and heartfelt without ever straying into sentimentality. Ware’s playing, too, seems to owe something to Ayler — perhaps more than is normally noticeable in more up-tempo settings. Note the way the sax seems to slide between notes, a raw, queasy sound that might almost sound ‘wrong’ to the uninitiated or unprepared. Or the way the hint of a gentle melody is consistently undermined by intense honks and barks breaking through and sudden runs into the upper register, away from the tune, as though Ware is unable to contain the strength of his feeling. Clearly, Ware has internalised Ayler’s radical technique and made it his own starting point, his own personal language of communication.
The band, too, is completely at home in this setting. Matthew Shipp’s piano switches from oceanic swells and crashing waves to concentrated whirls and eddies. One moment echoing the saxophone’s melodic discoveries, the next laying down huge melodramatic chords not dissimilar to Cal Cobbs’ ‘silent movie’ backing of Ayler’s most reflective moments. William Parker is a huge rumbling presence, endlessly inventive and propulsive, while Guillermo E. Brown’s scattershot drums constantly hint at the rhythmic trap none of them is going to fall into, giving the ensemble a shape to react against, a destination to avoid.
Still labouring under the misapprehension that free jazz is all fire and brimstone? This release contains more soul in a couple of randomly chosen seconds than most of today’s singers could muster in an entire career. You want to know the trick of it? David S. Ware ain’t fooling around here. He means every single moment of it. It’s easy to believe his life depends upon it. In today’s world of shallow philistinism and plastic conformity, is there anything more worthwhile for an artist to be doing?