Jazz: Saxophonist David S. Ware dead at 62



David S. Ware performing at Elastic in 2010
  • David S. Ware performing at Elastic in 2010
Yesterday afternoon New York free-jazz label Aum Fidelity sent out an e-mail describing the serious health issues faced by powerhouse saxophonist David S. Ware. The message, from label head Steven Joerg (also the saxophonist's manager since the mid-90s), said that Ware had been in and out of hospitals for the past year, suffering from complications of the life-saving kidney transplant he received in May 2009. Then, late last night, Joerg sent out another e-mail: Ware was dead. He'd passed at age 62 at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Ware got this start in Boston in the early 70s, forming the trio Apogee with drummer Marc Edwards and pianist Cooper-Moore; they moved to New York together in 1973. Within a few years Ware was working with bandleaders such as pianist Cecil Taylor and drummer Andrew Cyrille and participating in the loft-jazz scene—he appears on quintessential scene document Wildflowers: The New York Jazz Loft Sessions. But he's best known for a long-running quartet, formed in 1989, that included bassist William Parker, pianist Matthew Shipp, and a series of great drummers (Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra, and Guillermo E. Brown). With this band he devoted himself to deeply spiritual, heavy-duty exploration, applying the rigorous motific improvisation pioneered by Sonny Rollins—with whom he studied off and on for a decade beginning in the mid-60s—to open-ended compositions built on fiery interplay and high-octane blowing. After breaking up that band in 2007, he played and recorded in a few different configurations until his kidney problems became life-threatening in late 2008.

A willing kidney donor—a Florida woman named Laura Mehr, whose late husband had known Ware—stepped up with surprising swiftness, and it's a certainty that without her Ware wouldn't have been alive for the past three years. He used that time to keep making music, including an album with his final band, Planetary Unknown (with Parker, Cooper-Moore and drummer Muhammad Ali), called Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011, released this summer by Aum Fidelity. His last Chicago show was part of the Umbrella Music Festival in 2010—his solo performance at Elastic was later released on Organica (Solo Saxophones, Volume 2). I missed that set, and I was bummed out at the time—but that's nothing next to the sad knowledge that I'll never get another chance.

Aum Fidelity has posted the final section of the 2011 Saalfelden concert via Soundcloud:

I became an ardent Ware fan right around the time he started the quartet: I picked up a copy of his explosive trio album Passage to Music (Silkheart) with Parker and Edwards, I was was hooked. With the addition of a very young Matthew Shipp, the quartet offered a more prismatic, full-bodied, and malleable setting for the saxophonist, and on a series of albums for the Japanese label DIW the band truly hit its stride. The first time I saw Ware play was in 1994 at one of drummer Kahil El'Zabar's Underground Fests—this one at the Belmont Hotel—where he improvised with El'Zabar, bassist Malachi Favors, and pianist Jodie Christian. The firepower and smoldering charisma were there, but without the deep rapport and understanding of his working band, the performance didn't reach the highs I hoped for. That all changed when he finally returned with Parker, Shipp, and Ibarra in 1996 for a knockout concert at the Empty Bottle. I had the privilege of writing liner notes for the album the group had just released, Dao (Homestead)—while doing research for them I got to interview Ware, an experience I was fortunate enough to repeat several times later, and he was always gracious and passionate.

Ware was one of the galvanizing forces behind the renewed interest in free jazz in the 90s, and particularly helped attract young underground-rock fans to the music. He made records for a punk-rock label (Homestead) and played rock clubs, but more than anything else it was the unbridled intensity and imperturbable focus of his performances that made converts everywhere he went. I was already a committed jazz listener when I first heard him, but Ware drew me into the contemporary underground scene in a more profound way; I'm also convinced that his music and ethic helped foster Chicago's jazz and improvised-music scene from afar. He never watered down or compromised his art—even after Branford Marsalis signed him to Columbia Records in 1997—and he kept seeking until the end. To say he will be missed doesn't begin to acknowledge his importance.

Below you can check out video of the quartet, with Brown on drums, performing in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2007.

The great radio station of New York's Columbia University, WKCR, started an 18-hour memorial broadcast for Ware (featuring both his work as a bandleader and as a sideman) at 11 AM Chicago time. You can listen online here.

In case you haven't noticed yet, I've been making posts about jazz (using that term in the broadest possible terms) every Friday at 2 PM—I write about jazz at other times too, but not on a schedule—and I'll continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

Photo: Michael Jackson

Today's playlist:

Mal Waldron, The Whirling Dervish (America/Universal, France)
Gilbert Holmströms Kvintett, Utan Misstankar (Moserobie)
Z.M. Dagar & Z.F. Dagar, Ragini Miyan Ki Todi (Country & Eastern)
Volker Heyn, Sirènes (Edition RZ)
Søren Kjærgaard, Ben Street, and Andrew Cyrille, Femklang (ILK)

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