Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ware, David S. (Spencer)

Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware has an earthy yet spiritual sound full of kinetic energy. In performance, he soars away from the free-jazz aesthetic, and combines the lamentation of John Coltrane's later work with the thoughtful angularity of his early idol, Sonny Rollins.

Ware’s playing has been described by fans and critics as a seemingly unstoppable force: visceral and muscular, with careful attention to the blues, and gospel-inflected spirituality, his hymn-like sound emerges directly out of the blues, church music, and Coltrane. He draws at will from a deep bag of African-American influences, which are reconciled in his raw and immediately recognizable tone.

David Spencer Ware was born in Plainfield, New Jersey November 7, 1949. He began to play alto saxophone at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, then switched to baritone, and finally settled on tenor. He played in school bands in both junior high and high school, including marching band, concert band, and dance orchestras.

As a teenager, he met and formed a relationship with Rollins, whom he idolized and would travel to Manhattan to hear him perform at the Five Spot Café and the Village Vanguard. Tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who grew up in nearby Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, recalled he was completely wowed when he first heard Ware play, when both were still in their teens.

From 1967 to 1969, Ware attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he played with Stanton Davis, Cedric Lawson, and Art Lande. While in Boston, Ware also formed a trio called Apogee with drummer Marc Edwards and pianist Gene Y. Ashton (now Cooper-Moore). By 1973, Ware had moved to New York and became part of a circle of experimental and free-jazz musicians which included Sam Rivers, David Murray, Butch Morris, Arthur Blythe, Don Pullen, and Frank Lowe. With few opportunities for public performance, the musicians regularly performed in lofts and studios, some of which is documented on the Wildflowers anthology.

Ware also joined a group led by pianist Cecil Taylor which included alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and trumpeter Raphe Malik. This group played in Taylor’s 1974 Carnegie Hall Big Band, toured in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and recorded the album Dark to Themselves in 1974.

Apogee continued to perform, after Beaver Harris replaced Edwards on drums, and Ware also joined Harris’s 360 Degree Music Experience Ensemble, and Andrew Cyrille’s group Maono. By 1981, Ware had toured Europe with both of these groups groups was well as with Harris, Ashton, and bassist Brian Smith.

Ware's first album as a leader, Birth of Being, was also released in 1981, leading a trio with Marc Edwards and Gene Ashton. He also collaborated in the early 1980s with drummer Milford Graves. He toured Europe again in 1985 with his own trio, with Peter Kowald and either drummer Louis Moholo or Trurman Barker.

Ware became more interested in concentrated thematic development rather than furious extended improvisations. In 1988, he formed a new trio with Edwards and William Parker, which recorded Passage to Music. In 1989, based on Parker’s and Reggie Workman’s recommendations, pianist Matthew Shipp joined the group, with whom he remained until 2007. This was the first configuration of the David S. Ware Quartet. Ware, Shipp, and Parker have remained constants in the group, and the drum chair changed periodically. Edwards was replaced by Whit Dickey in 1992, by Susie Ibarra in 1996, and by Guillermo E. Brown in 1998.

Rather than compromise the singularity his vision or follow the journeyman's path as a sideman, Ware preferred to drive a taxi for 14 years, and to quietly cultivate his own group. This dedication paid off in the 1990s, when the quartet recorded a series of powerful and critically acclaimed albums in rapid succession: Great Bliss, Vols. 1 and 2 on Silkheart, Flight of I, Third Ear Recitation, Earthquation, and Godspelized on DIW, and Cryptology, DAO, and Wisdom of Uncertainty on Homestead and AUM Fidelity.

On "Tenderly" from 1994's Earthquation, Ware only occasionally lets the ballad's melody bubble to the tumultuous surface, but the roiling atmosphere suggests subterfuge more than romantic love. The track also features fine interplay between Ware and Shipp: where Ware intentionally loses his way, Shipp insistently outlines the song's chords, heightening the sense of dramatic tension.

“Aquarian Sound,” from Flight of I,underscores many of the strengths of Ware's music. A low, ostinato bass figure from William Parker meets a rapid hi-hat and the Tyner-like hymnal chord played by Matthew Shipp. Ware states and repeats the song's theme from deep within the tenor saxophone's range, then launches, as if propelled by hydrogen, a swirling, gospel-infused, mournful solo.

Likewise, “Sentient Compassion” from Third Ear Recitation, builds on the idea of a ballad to open an opportunity for a searing, high-velocity statement by Ware which seems to arise out of nothing to summarize all of his considerable abilities. Although the taut, considered statement of a powerfulpersonality, the theme gives way to delicate group interaction, the hallmark of a sensitive bandleader.

In 1997 Ware was signed to Columbia, whose jazz division was then headed by Branford Marsalis. His first album for the label was Go See the World in 1998, his first with Guillermo Brown on drums. Ware offers a raucous interpretation of Marvin Hamlisch's ballad "The Way We Were," obscuring the melody until about two minutes

into the song, Ware's stamp on this material is only shocking until we consider how John Coltrane's version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" must have sounded to listeners when he recorded it nearly 50 years ago.

Ware's second album for Columbia, Surrendered in 2000, includes an interpretation of Charles Lloyd’s “Sweet Georgia Bright.” In 2001, Ware left Columbia for AUM Fidelity and recorded Corridors & Parallels, with Shipp playing synthesizer, and a reinterpretation of Sonny Rollins’s classic 1958 album The Freedom Suite in 2001.

In 2003, Shipp’s Thirsty Ear label produced an album of Ware’s string music, THREADS, with Mat Maneri on viola and Daniel Bernard Roumain on violin. Some of the tracks do not feature saxophone at all, but Ware’s chamber music compositions reveal a cinematic imagination. Ware said: “I’m interested in using different techniques to get to a place of transcendence…I’m interested in going down more than one path, as far as the form, the melody are concerned.”

After touring for more than 15 years, Ware's released a live album, Live in the World, in 2004. Taken from three different European performances, each has a different drummer. In 2006, the quartet released its final recording, Renunciation, a live set from the Vision Festival in New York, during which they disbanded. In 2008, a new quartet with Joe Morris on guitar, Parker on bass, and Warren Smith on drums, released Shakti, an album with all new compositions.

Ware was diagnosed with kidney failure in 1999 and he began dialysis that fall. After an intensive search for a donor with his rare blood type, Type O, Ware received a kidney transplant in 2009 and is recovering, and has returned to performance.

Select Discography:

Passage to Music, Silkheart, 1988

Flight of I, DIW, 1991

Third Ear Recitation, DIW, 1993

Godspelized, DIW, 1996

Go See the World, Columbia, 1997

Freedom Suite, AUM Fidelity, 2002

THREADS, Thirsty Ear, 2003

BalladWare, Thirsty Ear, 2005

Renunciation, AUM Fidelity, 2007

Shakti, AUM Fidelity, 2008

Contributor: Sean Singer