To call Planetary Unknown a “new” band is a little misleading. This album is the first made by David S. Ware together with Cooper-Moore, William Parker and Muhammad Ali all at one time, yes. But the shared history of collaborations and session support between these four jazz elders goes all the way back to the Nixon administration. In a loose sense, Planetary Unknown has always been around. But now they’re…you know…together.
Planetary Unknown is largely getting credited as a David S. Ware project, but that seems to be more for marketing convenience than anything else. Between Ware, Cooper-Moore, Parker and Ali, it’s not crystal clear who is steering the pack. It makes sense that Ware, as the saxophonist, would take many of the leads. But pianist Cooper-Moore creates a great deal of shading that doesn’t need to take its cues from the solo flights Ware is providing. Bassist William Parker and drummer Muhammad Ali seem to be bouncing off one another, so they aren’t the captains of the ship, either. But that’s the way things operate when you have four hardened veterans playing music that is 100 percent made-up on the spot.
If you heard Ware’s Onecept from last year, you already know that he and Parker have plunged into these deep waters together before. Onecept was totally unscripted, spontaneous. It took you up, down and all around with very few signposts along the way acquainting you with a form. Planetary Unknown is the same story only now there is a piano (and Ali instead of Warren Smith on drums). It presents the same challenges, but maybe in an even wider chasm. Because, let’s face it: free jazz may never receive the wide acceptance its fans think it may deserve.
Cooper-Moore’s piano style is daunting, even for this album. Being the one instrument capable of playing chords in the traditional sense, you would think that the piano would be more of a harmonic anchor for Planetary Unknown. This silly idea gets pulverized by Cooper-Moore, channeling Cecil Taylor doing an impersonation of a spider weaving a web while on speed. All the while, Ware’s sax is relentless. One would never guess he recently underwent a kidney transplant after hearing him roll and flutter a note in the dirt for a good 10 bars. The opening track, “Passage Wudang”, sharply darts through what feels like a prolonged climax, lasting over 20 minutes. This is why free jazz is so exhausting to its detractors. They feel like the way the planet looks on the front and the back of the digipak: ravaged by sun, wind and rain. And what should change up the pace? A gut-busting drum solo from Ali.
Cooper-Moore and William Parker sit out for one track, the oddly titled “Duality is One”. But on a certain level, it’s not a stretch to say that a duet between Ware and Ali reaches a point of “oneness”. In fact, it happens pretty early on with Whack. Here, both men land on an emphasis together with no preamble, which is impressive considering how free jazz often revels in an elastic meter, one that can drive your toes crazy. So how did Ware and Ali accomplish that? If following the veterans of old school post-bop and free jazz has taught me anything, it’s that a sense of telepathy comes with duking it out together for years and years. Not just shifting dynamics or ending a song together, but a telepathy that runs deeper and can’t be accurately described. Only witnessed. Planetary Unknown, at the very least, is a display. And a hard won one at that.