Get our free newsletter
I can remember lying on the floor of my college apartment, exhausted from school and girl troubles, listening to Albert Ayler’s In Greenwich Village. It’s an agitating album and an odd choice considering my already nervous state. But as I lay there, my brain feeling as if a brick were tied to it, the music cut a path through my preoccupations, dividing them up and pushing them to the corners of my conscious mind: I had stopped listening to the Ayler group’s feverish bursts as outside stimuli, and had begun to let its sounds invade my body. And at some point, at long last, I felt peace. It was then, after often being baffled by free jazz, that I discovered there can be silence inside the cacophony.
I sometimes still listen to Ayler, later Coltrane, and various other ecstatic jazzers, but only if my mind permits; if I’m not in the proper mood to submit to their music, anxiety rather than serenity is the result (which, when you’re running low on coffee, isn’t a bad way to get revved). But for 47-year-old tenor saxophonist David S. Ware, cultivator of the spiritual sounds of Coltrane and Ayler, energy music brings nothing but tranquility.
“I don’t even think about energy, even though some people say it’s exhausting just to listen to [our music] because of the energy involved. But I don’t even think about it in terms of energy, because the energy of it is, like, a byproduct,” Ware says by phone from his Scotch Plains, N.J., home.
The David S. Ware Quartet’s latest, Wisdom of Uncertainty, continues the bandleader’s quest to combine definitive melodies and aleatory explorations. The burly Ware’s chest-thumping sound shoots from fragmentary squeals to long-running lines of notes that bunch up on one another. And unlike for listeners like me, who have to be ready to accept this seeming chaos, for Ware the music he unleashes is intrinsic to his being.
“Naturally, our energies fall into a certain sphere. We vibrateall of us, all of usvibrate in a unique way!” he exclaims. “But there are certain categories that you can put energy types into. The way that I play is just natural for me, know what I’m sayin’? It’s natural for me. The things that I like to do and how I like to do them is natural for me. It’s not the only way to do it, but that’s my type. This is where I feel comfortable at. I feel comfortable at that rate of activity. And that’s all it is; that’s all it is.”
“Even functioning at that [high energy] level, naturally, it still has to be cultured. [Our group] has been cultivating these plateaus of energy or activity or vibrationhowever you want to put itfor a long time,” Ware says. “So for me to try and go out there and do it another waythat would be a strain on me. The way we play, it’s no strain at all.”
After jamming with Sonny Rollins in the ’60s, working with Cecil Taylor and in the New York loft scene in the ’70s, and gigging with Andrew Cyrille in the ’80s, Ware intensified the rate of his solo activity in 1989 after he got his acclaimed quartet together. Pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker have been with Ware during the quartet’s full run, and percussionist Susie Ibarra is the third player to sit behind the kit.
Like those of Ayler and Coltrane before him, Ware’s philosophy springs from a mixture of Western religion and Eastern mysticism. (Though he declines to specify any particulars, Ware’s 1996 album, Dao, points to a strain of Taoism.) The saxophonist has meditated twice a day since 1973, and credits the practice as the source of all his inspiration.
“Meditation is, for me, the key. It’s the key to living in the world. It’s the key to accomplishing what it is you want to accomplish. It’s the key to fulfilling desires, fulfilling dreams,” Ware preaches. “There are always unseen forces, subtle forcesor spiritual forcesthat are available. Most of the time they dictate to the people how their lives are going to be played out. So when you meditate you touch upon these sources. You become intimate with these forces. These forces are integrated into your psyche, into your being. These things allow you to do things with less effort.”
In the liner notes to In Greenwich Village, Ayler says his music “tries to help bring about new approaches to living for everyone.” Ware recently experienced a manifestation of Ayler’s desire for positive change: “In either March or May we were on tour over in France, and some couple came up to us and said that they had cancer and through listening specifically to the music of this quartet that they had been cured.
“Now, this is their words, it’s not my words,” Ware is quick to add, though he doesn’t sound skeptical. “So the music does have great power. If you’re open enough, it can pull you into a sphere. And that sphere is somewhere down around the source of thought, where this relative world that we live in meets the absolute world. It’s somewhere down in that region. And there’s great, great, great healing power in that region. Basically, that’s where all healing, that’s where all inspiration, where all creativity [come from]…in between those two worlds down there. According to everything that I understand, that’s where all great things come from, no matter whether it’s poetry or some insight in science, it comes from that region, because it’s pure.”
“Meditation takes you to a place that’s a reservoir,” Ware adds. “It takes you to a source where all things arrive. I’m dealing with a meditation that takes me to the source of thinking. And there lies the basis of creativity. It takes you to a place that’s actually beyond thought, beyond activity, in other words. Relatively speaking, it is a place of silence. It’s place of nonactivity, of nonmovementbut it’s not stagnant.”
Speaking on the phone from his New York City apartment, Shipp agrees: “No matter how much motion there is, you’re actually doing it in a state of complete rest. No matter how much sound there’s supposed to be, it’s in a matrix of silence.”
Shipp says he enters a trance when he plays, as if he’s at a religious service where worshipers are speaking in tongues: “That’s the whole basis of what we do. I think it’s trying to really let language flow through you, and to have that happen there has to be some type of trance or state of heightened concentration or letting go.”
The title of Shipp’s latest, By the Law of Music (featuring his “string” trio, with violinist Mat Maneri and bassist Parker), “refers to the fact that as a musician I’m always trying to align myself with the flow of language,” he says. “And if what you’re going to do is successful there has to be some kind of submission to that language. The law [of that language] allows the syntax to unfold and flow. So you can take parts of this and parts of that and invert them and change them, and it still flows as a whole. So I actually do consider that normal. I mean, Bach used that, more or less. I think syntax is reversible, flippable, and it still keeps a flow if you’re dealing with something that is a whole.”
While Shipp, who also meditates, and Ware talk about similar sources of inspiration, their approaches to music are as different as their personalities. Where Ware is excitable, his voice passionately rising and falling, Shipp is reserved. Where Shipp’s albums are mostly composed and constructed as suites, Ware tends to record a lot of material and edit a CD out of many pieces. And Ware seems to be more comfortable living the arduous life of an experimental musician, as the title Wisdom of Uncertainty attests. While he’s not rich, Ware was able to stop driving a cab two and a half years ago and live solely on his musichis own music. After he got the quartet together, he swore he’d never be a sideman again.
“I like to get my own band, because I like to work on my own music. I don’t like to be subjected to other people’s ways of doing things, their lifestyle, their philosophy. So I have my own. I just work with it; that’s all,” says Ware, his voice rising. “[The album’s] concept of uncertainty is taken in the context of one’s whole life in choosing the type of lifestyle that, you know, you’re not getting a salary, you’re not getting a paycheck, you’re not getting a pension. As a creative individual you don’t know anything. You don’t know where the next job is coming from. You don’t know when the next recording is coming, if it’s coming. You don’t know that. In a surface sense you don’t, but in a deep, deep sense you do. You know that things are coming.”
“You don’t know how, when, how you know, where, how, who you know,” Ware blasts, tripping over his words. “But you know deep down inside they’re coming. Still, living like this…actually, it’s a great thing because you’re [giving] the deep forces of nature the chance to work out the best things for you in life. I do what I do because I love [it]. And so that really takes care of it. I know that sounds simple, but that takes care of it. Because one moment in time you may not have no work for the rest of the year. You don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills months down the line. And the next moment you could receive a phone call that takes care of the rest of your life! This is the way it is. This is the life and the wisdom of uncertainty.”
Shipp, who is 12 years younger than Ware, seems less sure. “I often think about leaving music and getting a regular job,” he laughs. “Not often, but sometimes. There are periods when there’s a decent cash flow, the bills are getting paid. And there’s periods where there’s no work.” But, Shipp says, “I do know this is what I do, and that’s that.”
“The way of wisdom is the way of the unknown. That’s basically what my life’s about. I accept that!” shouts Ware, before backing off for a second. “In the past couple of years, I’ve almost fully accepted that. You go through periods where you’re not fully accepting who you are. So in the last several years, just life has shown, ‘Hey, man, this is who you are!’ There’s a couple parts to this thing. Even if you accept who you are you may not accept how it is. How it is! The reality of it! But I’ve come to learn not only who I am but how it is, how this life is. And once you accept yourself and the reality to what it is, that brings wisdom and the forces that you’re connected with, they’re not going to have you live on the street! They’re not gonna do that! They’re not gonna have you in the poorhouse somewhere! They will support you. But you have to be deeply in tune with them. That’s the thing. You’ve got to be in their sphere, and that’s what meditation does.”
“If I had a kid I’d be telling him just what I’m telling myself. I’d be whispering in his ear, everyday, ‘Don’t be afraid. Whoever you find out you are, you go with that. If you have a strong desire to do something, go with it, go with it, go with it…’”CP
The David S. Ware Quartet goes with it in its local debut at 9 p.m. Friday, September 5 at the Washington Ethical Society, 7750 16th St. NW. Tickets are $15. For information call (301) 884-5125.