DAVID S. WARE: The price of free

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David S Ware: Sweet Georgia Bright
DAVID S. WARE: The price of free

When the histories of jazz in the 20th century are published one name from the last two decades could loom unnaturally large: Wynton Marsalis.

In some books he'll be hailed as the man who saved jazz from factionalism, commercial isolation and the like. In others he'll be the revisionist who used unquestionable talent, persuasive intellect and immense personal charm to marginalise artists and styles his precociousness and dogmatic attitude chose to dismiss. Count me with the latter.

On many levels I admire Marsalis. When he first came to New Zealand it was my pleasure to interview him and then we wandered around Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre together chatting about Miles Davis’ health, where all this was going, the attitude and so on. Real nice guy.

I've seen him play and have interviewed him a few times since. I believe I've honestly reported what he says, and because he’s much more amusing than his words appear in bare print, I've faithfully tried to represent that.wyntonMarsalis

But I've also added a little necessary corrective gloss. I've certainly mentioned his extensive catalogue -- what is it now, 40 or 50 albums? -- seems scrupulously free of what we might call memorable compositions.There's also no great pool of musicians who want to perform his stiffly reverential material.

Maybe at the end of this particular century when other books are written, Wynton will be seen as the Boswell to much bigger Johnsons, if you get the dick-swinging analogy.

This media savvy son of the late 20th century initially re-positioned jazz back into parameters Miles Davis set in the early 60s -- which Davis abandoned. As Wynton had too when he realised dogma is fine, but music doesn't stand still. What Marsalis discovered after studying Davis' Sixties suits and sounds was that from there you had to go either forward or back.

He persuaded many people going back was better. He now offers a passage to Duke Ellington.

Well cool -- and it is, really terrific. But?

Wynton may not like, for example, the jazz fusion of Davis, Weather Report, Al DiMeola and others. Fine.

However he forgets or ignores that most people didn't and don’t like it either and are selective in their listening to it.

But that doesn't mean it didn't exist or some good didn't come out of it. It certainly seems to be as influential on young players as Wynton once was.

More so perhaps.

What irritates most about his revisionist and contagious attitude is many styles cf jazz -- and I'm thinking specifically of free jazz now -- are not only written out by omission, but that it consistently considers them a side issue: “To be abstract means to be abstract, that's all,” Wynton said to me in January 2000.

Yeah, and...?

Sure it's just another style. But it's been a damn important vehicle of expression, especially for black artists like the fiery Revolutionary Ensemble, the musico-political lightning rod of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, towering individuals such as Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler...

Free jazz extended the contract John Coltrane wrote and – revisionists notwithstanding -- it hasn't gone away.

One of its most long serving practitioners as the millennium turned was 51-year old, nerve-ending tenor saxophonist David S. Ware.

Born in New Jersey and schooled in Cecil Taylor's bands in the mid-Seventies, he possesses that spiritual impulse which drove Coltrane, speaks of sciences as chess master Braxton might, and makes sometimes extraordinary music. Oh, and if you think rock connections somehow confer status on a jazz musicians: he's opened for Sonic Youth.

So that probably means he's okay, right?

Better than that, he makes muscular free jazz that connects with and extends the lineage of Coltrane, Braxton, Taylor and Arthur Blythe.

Ironically – or just coincidentally – he was on Columbia alongside Wynton, and was introduced to it by Branford, a man with more catholic taste and a democratic attitude to music than his brother.

Ware's album at the time was Surrendered, a real broad-screen affair.ware2

It was as out-there as his previous stuff, which made it the ideal starting point of free jazz was outside your orbit and you were curious.

Of course the upshot was some critics expressed the customary qualms which aficionados and bores do about most idioms whether it be punk, country music or razor gargling. Oh, he's sold out. Just look at the title!

Let's give the artist some credit. This isn't a Rod Stewart or All Saints career move.

It's an album by a man who had played this music for 30 years and he made the album he wanted to make. You can't apply the litmus test of what his critics wanted him to make wanted him to make. (It's usually more of what they liked before.)

Consider instead Surrendered for what it is: an approachable way in to free jazz.

There are recognisable tunes, yes. But that's neither buying in or selling out. It bridges the gap between interminable illiterate soloing (leave that to those who think “free” means making it up as you go along) and the real revolutionary spirit which drives this music.

Ware points out in the liner notes that free jazz isn't free, it comes at great cost. There are no hit records or Grammys, praise and gratitude come from those who get what's going on, and nearly 40 years after Coleman, Coltrane,Taylor and Albert Ayler tore down the walls of harmonic and rhythmic bias, “the standard reactions are still scorn, disbelief and dismissive apathy. In other words you pay to play it”.

Gee, I wonder who might need to be reminded of that?

When the histories of 20th century jazz are published, here's a tip: Turn first to the pages about free jazz. If there aren't many or it is given cursory treatment wait for a better, more honest one.

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Your Comments

Chris - Oct 11, 2010

Thanks... the quartet with Shipp, Parker and either Susie Ibarra, Guillermo E Brown or even Marc Edwards on drums is truly epic. Check out the new trio recording on Aum Fidelity called Onecept... i haven't yet: so much to hear, so little money:)

Angela Soutar - Jul 5, 2018

Good to hear that judgement on W. Marsalis. I've always felt a little guilty for not liking his work, despite all the hypey kudos he's been given.

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