The jazz and modern music worlds are mourning the sudden death of tenor sax titan David S. Ware from complications from a kidney transplant at the age of 62. I was the pianist of the David S. Ware Quartet for 16 years, and a close friend of David's. Eschewing basic biographical material, this piece is an overview of David as a composer.
Like all great artists, David is a very hard entity to pin down. His whole trip is full of contradictions and his great artistry is probably a function of the friction of these paradoxes.
First of all, David is thought of in the "free jazz tradition," but his major contribution to the music was a quartet that operated with a lot of freedom but was obviously grounded in logic and rules that generated that particular universe of sound. So David was influenced on tenor by the usual suspects - Coltrane, Albert Ayler and John Gilmore, the great tenor player in the Sun Ra band. But what entered the equation after that was David's relationship with his mentor, Sonny Rollins. David, like Rollins, was a master of motivic development (the development of a compositional idea using cells in sequences or repetition) when he wanted to be, so the nexus of the post-bop Rollins influence plus Ware's devotion to the first-generation avant-garde masters put him in a different dimension than the usual.
David also had an affinity for people who you don't usually think of as primary influences on tenor sax - Roland Kirk and Charles Lloyd - but these people contributed to his development also. David basically internalized the whole jazz tenor tradition and picked and chose a little from here, a little from there as to what constituted his particular synthesis and stance. From his years playing in piano pioneer Cecil Taylor's band, David imbibed the quest to compose cells and motives that had weight and life, and then fuse the compositional aspect with the improvisational aspect. That was something he felt he never achieved while with Cecil - he said he played on top of the music as opposed to playing the music. This ended up being David's lifelong quest, to have compositions that were so rich with possibilities that his group could have a feast improvising within his material.
Of course, when talking about any great artist, you can never get to the essence of their work by talking about their influences, for it is something else that synthesizes the disparate parts into a new whole. In David's case, it was his intense spirituality that was the guiding light for his whole aesthetic. A deep student of Vedanta and Buddhism, David was an intense meditator and very metaphysical. His quest to transcend was the whole impetus for his music. Early on, some critics used the term "esthetic jazz" to characterize what we did. In some ways that was accurate, in some ways not, but David's tone was seeking what in Hinduism is called spanda - the subtle creative pulse of the universe as it manifests into dynamic, living form.
David was obsessed with formal elements in his music, and in making sure that discipline was involved so as to distinguish it from just any free jazz blowout. His themes carry great weight, and like Anton Webern's, each motif seems to be the product of untold hours of thought.
His sax was his first instrument, and his quartet was his second. A lot of great jazz is the result of a leader that knows how to assemble the right group of people to actualize a certain thing - think Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. A great bandleader is almost like a master psychologist. David's third instrument was his actual compositions, which elicited the band members' imaginations and lifted off into space, propelled by David's deep talent for organizing sound with silence. There is a deep lyricism that propels Ware's sound, even in its flights up the overtone series. David was a prolific composer, constantly generating language.
Of course, I am not an objective observer of the Ware body of work, but I think David is one of the greatest artists that the jazz idiom has given us in the last 30 years or so. Long live David S. Ware's music.
Find out more about David S. Ware's life and music at www.davidsware.com.
Matthew Shipp is an ASCAP Foundation Vanguard Award-winning jazz pianist/composer and a longstanding member of the David S. Ware Quartet. Read our interview with him from early 2012: http://bit.ly/PSKHXX