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The Vanishing Afro-American

by Howard Hampton
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Vanishing Afro-American

Howard Hampton
12 Snaps

David S. Ware could be the last of a vanishing breed—those imposing tenor giants who once bestrode (a la Sonny Rollins’s “Strode Rode” and namesake Woody Strode in Once Upon a Time in the West) the earth as saxophone colossi. He’s distilled the unreserved, pathfinding stratagems of Rol­lins, the mystic envelope-pushing of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, the sputtering guttural rasp of Archie Shepp and the sensual one of early Gato Barbieri, into a pulsing wall of circular-breathing incantation. Ware’s enormous, keening tone and jaggedly breathtaking blocks of song and fury suggest an aural equivalent to Monu­ment Valley rock formations—or a black John Wayne galloping through them with the obsessive, im­passive swagger of a dinosaur on the trail of some ­equally primordial Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Ware’s dense, quavering lines and honking phrases loom over abstract harmonic landscapes like a force of mythological nature: an overblowing Minotaur or maybe a MIRV griffon (half warhead, half lion) performing a tumultuous reconciliation of intelligent design and chaos theory, roaring thoughtfully against the twilight. Which is a hyperbolic way of describing his romance with sound in its purest, most naked form. But the secret of his art (or at least a good chunk of it) has to do with the way he unrepentantly sculpts and finesses the hyperbolic qualities of free jazz itself, the over-the-top, out-of-their-heads, squall-and-scrawl qualities that can otherwise result in one interminable, unmodulated freak-out after another.

Thus “Acclimation” on Ware’s 1997 album Wisdom of Uncertainty opens with him sinking his chops into a wonderfully declamatory head, an R&B riff that’s been twisted into an almost classical shape, giving it a subtly misshapen grandeur. He proceeds to launch into a series of jolting yet deeply controlled variations on the theme, on the tenor saxophone’s timbre, and on what you might call the time-space discontinuum. Ware seems suspended inside a tight penumbra of dramatic effects—crashing nineteenth-century piano chords, sweeping drumrolls, low bass plunks—and manages to carve out a poised, meditative area inside all the commotion: a “Rapturelodic” tact and/or attack, to borrow the title of a lesser composition.

Pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker have been with him for about twenty years; only the drummers in his quartet have changed (my favorite has been Susie Ibarra, a pint-sized Cézanne of the skins). So there’s a tremendous sense of continuity, focus, and hard-won refinement to his music. Outside of a brief period in the ’70s as a sideman in Cecil Taylor’s unit (which can be instructively sampled on the clamorous, near-impenetrable Dark to Themselves) and a few scarce guest shots, he has devoted himself strictly to his own music. There’s an almost monastic ceremonial quality supporting his great leaps into uncharted territories: a lyrical gravitas that makes nominally abstruse items like “Sentient Compassion” signify as timeless and turns standards like “Yesterdays” or (holy cocktail lounge, Batman!) “Autumn Leaves” into delirious, defamiliarized psychogeographies.

On his recent three-disc magnum opus Live in the World—the most satisfying jazz album of the past ­twenty-five years, a London Calling for the post–Love Supreme generation—there’s a hypnotic half-hour version of “Aquarian Sound” that epitomizes his aesthetic. It builds a vibrant cell by cell structure: Parker’s hard-dancing bass, Shipp’s astutely percussive formalist piano, Ibarra’s cymbal-flecked, spun-silk polyrhythms. Enter the leader in full Last-Tango-in-Brooklyn regalia, then gradually, inexorably, moving outward into the sonic wilderness. Shipp follows with a Latinate concerto of avant-Rachmaninoff bebop; Parker plays a spectacularly quiet arco interlude whose ghostly repetitions conduct an on-and-off duet with Ibarra’s sporadic, painterly patterns, finally segueing back into the initial bass line with the whole band digging in and retelling the entire journey in the last five minutes.

What do you play for an encore after a kaleidoscopic trip like that?—and it’s only the first number. There are still eleven to go that survey roughly three more hours of music. We’re talking brazen epic here: the saxophonist cutting radical David of Arabia swaths through the pristine explosiveness of “Stargazers,” “Un­known Mansion,” “Logistic,” and, oh yes, a nice little traversal of Sonny Rollins’s “Freedom Suite” that runs to about a fond hour of wrestling with the angels and demons of jazz history.

He has his share of well-placed, well-deserved ad­mirers to be sure, from Gary Giddins and mainstream tenor idol Michael Brecker (who has compared him to ’Trane and called him “an inspiration to all of us”) to Robert Christgau (rightly plugging Ware’s equivalent to “My Favorite Things,” a show-and-heart-stopping romp through that misty water-colored Streisand chestnut “The Way We Were”). But he has virtually no cultural presence in an era that has relegated jazz to the fringes of fun­less esoterica and instead exalts the incessantly puny, nar­cissistic modes of me-me-me and bling-bling-bling. In 1998, Ware dubbed his best major-label shot at finding a commercial niche for himself Go See the World: meaning I think the world that existed before we were born and will remain after we’re gone, the tactile universe he joyously immerses himself in even as it seems to be disappearing from the distracted, oversaturated, undernourished thing our tribal iPod Peoples still nostalgic­ally call consciousness.

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