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  The Top Working Band in Jazz Today  
  by Dustin Garlitz  
     
 

November 2004:

The top working band in jazz today is the David S. Ware Quartet.   Only the Brad Mehldau Trio approaches the same kind of excellence in performance. 

          Columnist Gary Giddins has written that David Ware’s band is the top small working combo in jazz today, and I totally agree with him.  The Quartet features Ware on tenor saxophone, Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums.  The group’s first drummer was Mark Edwards back in 1989, when Shipp joined Ware and Parker.  Previously Ware recorded in a trio format with the group ‘Apogee’.  This band had Cooper-Moore on piano and Edwards on drums.  Cooper-More and Ware had met at Berklee during the late 1960s, and they subsequently moved into a loft building on Canal Street in New York City's Lower Manhattan.  Ware was originally from North Central New Jersey, and his new New York City location allowed him to be closer to home.  The trio Apogee sold their first recording to the Swiss ‘Hat Hut’ records and spent a whole summer touring Europe. (This period of Ware's career was covered rather thoroughly in Cooper-Moore's interview in the indie publication 50 Miles of Elbow Room.)  When this particular band broke up, David found himself employed by the Cecil Taylor Unit (touring Europe once again), and repeatedly worked with drummers Andrew Cyrille and Beaver Harris in the years to come.

            Sweden’s Silkheart Records was partially responsible for the reemergence of Ware (along with other avant-garde jazz musicians such as Charles Gayle, William Hooker and the quartet Other Dimensions in Music) in the late 1980s.  Ware had participated in Hooker’s first recording (alongside David Murray) and was part of Peter Kowald’s East Village jazz festival (which included playing in a big band with the Reverend Frank Wright)…yet he didn’t have steady work until he was signed to Silkheart.  His albums Great Bliss Volume 1 and 2 were the first to feature Shipp on piano in a quartet with Parker and Edwards.  In the mid 1990s Ware was then signed to Homestead Records.  This label was dedicated to recording mostly hardcore rock, but did feature some free jazz projects.  By this time Whit Dickey had replaced Edwards on drums.  In 1994 the quartet recorded Cryptology -- the album's closing track "The Liberator" has been praised for breaking down the borders of jazz and introducing energy music listeners to new sounds.  The next year the band recorded Dao, an album that featured a beautiful Asian melodic statement found in its Tao Above Sky.  During this year Homestead executive Steven Joerg left the company to start a new label called ‘Aum Fidelity’.  Ware left with him and allowed him to become his manager.  The first album on the new imprint was made in 1996 and was called Wisdom of Uncertainty.  This was the second album that featured Susie Ibarra on drums (the first was recorded earlier that year and was called Godspelized.  It's distributed by a major Japanese company and contains a wonderful version of Sun Ra’s "The Stargazers").   The song "Utopic" is the centerpiece of Wisdom of Uncertainty -- it allows the listener to attain spiritual enlightenment with its transcendental melody.  During this time the quartet toured Europe (and played at a jazz festival in Austria augmented by tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle -- the last time Ware and Gayle played together).  At one festival, Branford Marsalis heard Ware’s band and was really blown away.  He told him he would like to sign his band to a major record label.  When Marsalis was made Creative Director at Sony Music’s Columbia Jazz Records, he actually did follow through and sign him.  Ware was Marsalis’ first signee and was given a six-album contract (the same type Miles Davis and Bob Dylan were given back in the day).  At this point in time Ware was given the cover of Jazziz Magazine in part because of his stellar musical accomplishments and in part as a publicity stunt to promote his first album with Columbia.  This album was titled Go See the World, and led to a second titled Surrendered (in which Guillermo Brown replaced Susie Ibarra).  To promote Surrendered, Ware’s Quartet was given the opening act of the Bell Atlantic Jazz festival feature performance of Cecil Taylor and Max Roach.  10,000 people showed up for this concert at Upper Manhattan’s Columbia University in the City of New York.  Ware would go on to perform at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Downtown Manhattan's Greenwich Village the next year.  Yet it was also in 2001 that Ware broke with Columbia Records.  He would record a tribute to his early mentor Sonny Rollins back on Aum Fidelity in 2002 (track 2 swings like crazy).  Earlier that year he performed the same suite in honor of ‘Newk’ at the San Francisco Jazz Organization’s tribute concert (billed alongside more mainstream jazz artists such as Joshua Redman.  Actually other better known tenor men such as Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, David Leibmen, and George Garzone -- all also out of Berklee -- know and respect Ware’s music.  Brecker, who was actually Ware's music school roommate in Berklee's 1960s student housing system, wrote the liner notes to Ware’s Solo album recorded at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands during the 1990s).  Most recent for the tenor titan is a three disc album that features a different drummer on each set -- Brown on one, Ibarra on another, and Chicago’s Hamid Drake on the third (the latter of which works very well with Parker, since they have played together on many occasions in the German avant-garde jazz tenor saxophonist Peter Brotzmann’s Ensemble named ‘Die Like A Dog’).

What makes the David S. Ware Quartet so remarkable is that three of the four musicians in the band are considered landmark jazz innovators and leaders on their own.  Shipp has recorded countless albums as a leader (and has even made the cover of the British-based modern music magazine The Wire), and William Parker co-founded one of the biggest free jazz festivals in the world -- the Vision Festival on New York City's East Side of Lower Manhattan.  The style of Ware is linear: he will write a musical statement, and then modify it using free-form improvisation.  Shipp and Parker add character while Brown holds it all together on drums.  Recently this trio has recorded an import album which focuses completely on Ware’s original compositions.  The teachers at Berklee weren’t very receptive to Ware’s unorthodox style and avant-garde influences.  Charlie Mariano’s lessons didn’t work out so the tenor saxophonist was transferred to Professor Viola, who was more sympathetic.  Yet Ware’s real music education came from Sonny Rollins.  The ‘saxophone colossus’ even allowed a young Ware to open up for his band at the Village Vanguard back in the day (I guess it was in the same nurturing fashion as the time Charles Gayle hired me to play in his band during my freshman year of college).  Today Ware rarely performs without his Quartet (although he did play alongside drummers’ Andrew Cyrille, Billy Hart, and Rashied Ali during 2000 and 2001).  He won’t tour Japan because the music promoters only want him to come (minus Shipp, Parker, and Brown).  This shows the tenor man’s devotion to unity and is one of the reasons his quartet is arguably the best working band in jazz today.  Hopefully they will stay together for years to come.

            Pianist Brad Mehldau’s trio follows Ware’s band in my listing of top current jazz groups.  Brad was also a student at the New School Jazz Program in New York City's Greenwich Village, where I studied for two years.  He studied jazz piano with faculty members Gary Dial and Fred Hirsch (Dial teaches theory and performance there -- he will get you playing with a Trane like urgency).    Soon after college, Mehldau landed a record contract with Warner Brothers, where his Art of the Trio albums (specifically the Live at the Village Vanguard sessions) became wildly popular.  Today he has made the label transition to Nonesuch.  What makes Mehldau different from a lot of American musicians is that he isn’t afraid to work with European jazz players like his drummer (Mehldau is one of the most popular jazz instrumentalist overseas).  In years to come he will continue to re-arrange pop culture songs and make many more astonishing jazz albums. 

            I’ll never forget when I played the first track of Ware’s album Cryptology to my freshman year ‘Ear Training’ class (taught by bassist Doug Weiss). Their reaction was one of astonishment.  I told the class that I thought that the David S. Ware Quartet was the top working group in jazz today.  The instructor said, “Okay…but don’t forget about the Brad Mehldau Trio.”  After further examination I still think Ware's quartet is tops, but Mehldau's trio is not too far behind.