It’s been about five years since free jazz legend David S. Ware took to the studio to record an album. Since the release of Threads in 2003, a lot has happened. Ware scrapped his long-running Quartet of Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Guillermo E. Brown. He released a couple live documents, including a recording of the line-up’s last show, Renunciation (2007). And late last year, Ware’s doctors told him that the faulty kidney he had nurtured since 1999 was going to fail, meaning a transplant was imperative. Several friends and fans have offered to donate a kidney, and it appears like Mr. Ware will get through this OK.
That’s great news for jazz fans, because judging from Shakti, Ware’s new studio album, the saxophonist’s well isn’t even close to dry. His new quartet includes Parker again on bass, while guitarist Joe Morris and percussionist Warren Smith fill out the rhythm section. From the beginning, the change introduces a different vibe, with the springy post-bop of “Crossing Samsara” representing a fresh change from Renunciation. Morris and Ware double up on the melody as if bringing a long-lost Ornette composition to life. Parker knows exactly which notes will accentuate the disjunct melody’s jagged contours, but it’s Smith’s airy interjections that really surprise. The Chicago drummer is one of the most versatile but underrated of his kind in improvised music today, his background encompassing the stylistic disparities between contemporary compositions from both Harry Partch and Bill Dixon. His touch is light but decisive, always right in the rhythmic pocket but timbrally inventive at every turn. Even as the music veers toward Ware’s customary freedom, Smith fills each nook and cranny with sparse but absolutely creative phrases, skating expertly along the edges of meter and pulse.
If the group sounds leans toward refinement at times, visceralgia is replaced by intricate exploration. The opening moments of “Nataraj” demonstrate the new aesthetic, Parker laying down a solid modal line while Smith deftly creates polyrhythms on two cymbals, all beautifully captured by a top-drawer recording. Ware hangs a gorgeously plaintive melody in the air that is shadowed, cannon-fashion, by resonant ghost-tones from Morris’ guitar. Eventually, even as Ware and Morris weave increasingly dense, delicate counterpoint, Parker and Smith hang back, Smith’s cymbal patterns only periodically enhanced by snare and toms. None of this prepares for “Nama,” during which Ware’s mbira shimmers and dances amidst high-harmonic arco work from Parker, reminiscent of Art Davis’ contributions to Coltrane’s Olé.
Ware’s inventiveness burns as brightly as ever, his playing encompassing every dynamic and expressive shade. He breaks up long lines with stunning rhythmic bursts in the Dolphy vein, but his attack, bent notes and vibrato speak to Pharoah Sanders’ influence, as does his use of modal melodies. Really though, he’s transcended influence, each gesture a transformation of the last, and a departure for the next. His group always keeps up with him, staying abreast of every new idea as it unfolds, something I occasionally felt lacking in the classic Ware quartet. Shakti is a bold new statement from a true innovator.