David S. Ware: Saxophone Colossus


Avant-garde saxophonist David S. Ware and his quartet represent a new breed of jazz players whose notes will reverberate into the next century. By Bill Meyer

Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware’s stormy, high-energy music encompasses the history of jazz. Enthuses Matthew Shipp, who plays piano in Ware’s quartet, “He’s one of the last of the Mohicans—there’s nobody in the world who has what he has. In one way, he embodies the whole tenor tradition; there’s the stream of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler in his playing, and all that represents. Then there’s the added dimension of the whole Sonny Rollins thing and the whole Rahsaan Roland Kirk thing, too. To my knowledge, there is nobody who has synthesized the whole tenor tradition in the way he has.”

This synthesis is the product of decades of hard work on the avant-garde fringe, work that’s come to fruition with the Columbia Records release of his quartet’s new album, Go See The World.

Ware was born in 1950 in Scotch Plains, N.J. “I was raised in a house where I heard music early on,” he recalls. “My father had all of these hundreds of 78 records: Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, blues bands.” David came home from a fifth-grade band demonstration all set to play the drums, but his dad redirected him to the saxophone. “I guess that’s why I’m always going through one thing or another with drummers, because I would have been a drummer,” Ware says. “I always feel close to the drummers.”

Nonetheless, he took to the tenor saxophone, and within a couple years, he was exchanging letters with one of the instrument’s masters: Sonny Rollins. This correspondence developed into an informal apprenticeship. “When I was in seventh or eighth grade, he started writing me letters,” says Ware. “To make a long story short, it was basically around 1969 when I finally just told him, ‘Look man, I would like to play for you.’ So he invited me over to his apartment in Brooklyn. After that, we started hanging out and we started practicing together because he saw that I was a sincere individual. I was like 19 or 20 at the time. I used to tell his wife that this is like a little boy meeting Superman—it was a dream come true to be able to develop a relationship with him.”

Ware has followed Rollins’ example in several important ways. Like his idol, he’s a life-long student of his instrument—both men have taken years off from their public careers to practice their horn. Like Rollins, Ware has gone his own way regardless of what anyone has had to say about the music he plays. And both men, after a certain point, stopped working as sidemen in other people’s bands so they could focus on their own ideas.

Ware also took inspiration from other key players. A 1966 concert by Coltrane’s group with Pharoah Sanders was an example of how intense, energetic music could transport a listener into a state of spiritual ecstasy. “It really opened up something in me,” says Ware. “It made me want to keep going in whatever direction I was going in—it propelled me forward. I was just so very, very happy.” (You can hear some of this performance on Coltrane’s epic Live At The Village Vanguard Again! on Impulse.)

For 18 months in the mid-‘70s, Ware played with pianist Cecil Taylor, whose percussive approach meshed well with Ware’s rhythmic affinity. After Taylor, Ware worked for William Hooker, Andrew Cyrille, Beaver Harris and Milford Graves (all drummers) and started to develop his own band. In the early ‘80s, Ware toured Europe and recorded a couple of now-rare LPs, but for most of that decade, the only public place you could find him was in the driver’s seat of a New York City cab. He dropped out of the music scene to work undistracted on his craft, and the years of woodshedding are evident in his tireless stamina and unique instrumental voice. In his horn’s midrange, Ware gets a huge, grainy tone with a fluttering vibrato that gives his melodies emotional weight. His extended forays into the upper register leap from quicksilver squeals to complex split tones.

But Ware wasn’t just working on his own chops; he was developing a band concept. Many jazz musicians spend their whole careers playing in impermanent ad-hoc groupings, but since 1989, Ware has maintained a stable quartet that’s recorded 11 albums. Parker has been his bassist since the late ‘70s; Shipp has been with him since 1989; Susie Ibarra stepped into the drummer’s chair in 1996 (replacing Whit Dickey). Ware never sits in with other groups, preferring to stick to his own band.

“I really believe in that very strongly,” says Ware. “I think I’ve got enough music to deal with on my own; I don’t like to play under somebody else’s umbrella philosophically. I don’t know what they’re into. Yeah, it could be another payday—whatever, we all need money—but there are certain things that are more important to me than making money. That’s why I drove a cab for all those years, so I wouldn’t have to go through that. Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus—these people were institutions, their bands were institutions, a chance for players to come through there until they get it together. I think there needs to be more of that. I think isolation like that is good. Things get a chance to solidify, develop, and you get a chance to get thorough in a certain thing.”

“What David wants,” explains Shipp, “is a very deep level of communication where you don’t even have to talk a lot—things are just felt. He doesn’t like to teach you things; he really feels that if you don’t find a solution for yourself to a particular piece, whatever is the problem that is being worked out, that there’s no point for you to even be playing.”

“What he wants is for the music to be itself,” says Parker. “His concept is not telling you what to do. Hopefully, what you play will be the right thing.”

This method might sound haphazard, but the results are not. Each member of Ware’s quartet has a strong individual voice; by keeping the group together long enough for them to really know each other’s playing and his tunes, Ware has created a sonic force field that wields amazing power with terrifying precision. Each musician fulfills multiple functions and can change roles instantly. Shipp defines the tonal architecture, but he also batters out great rhythm blocks. Ibarra’s cymbals and gongs create near-orchestral textures, but her swinging stick work is also the gas flame that heats Ware to the boiling point. Parker’s tightly knotted plucking erects an abstract but structurally essential scaffolding for his leader’s forays, but he can redirect a piece with the irresistible gravity of his bowed solos. The point of all this effort, as Ware sees it, is simply to play improvised music with care and trained intuition instead of random indulgence.

“I want to see this music have the attention that it deserves,” he says. “Now that means that if it gets the attention that it deserves, it should be worthy, it has to be together. I want to see the music in its correct position of influence, of prestige. This should be a music that’s held in high esteem. It’s not. It’s totally misunderstood by musicians and listeners alike. There needs to be more education about what’s going on in the music—the philosophical side of it and the musical side of it. All of these things need to be brought out, but no one’s going to listen to you anyway if you’re not held in high esteem. Us being on Columbia is part of that. It’s part of the music rising to its correct position.”

The quartet’s recent signing to Columbia is an event so flabbergasting that it could make an atheist believe in angels. Although the label once issued influential recordings by Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, its main contribution to the past 20 years of jazz is Wynton Marsalis, a solid technician whose neo-conservative vision aspires to turn the music into a museum piece. One aspect of this neo-conservative agenda has been a concerted effort to deny that what the quartet plays is jazz at all. Ironically, it was Wynton’s brother, Branford—in his first act as a creative consultant for Columbia’s jazz division—who signed the band.

Go See The World shows no signs of external tampering; instead, it captures the group at the top of its interactive game. “When you look at what else constitutes major-label jazz,” says Shipp, “it’s such a joke that it’s actually kind of funny that we’re there. Basically, this is a chance to be a terrorist and assault the major-label jazz world, which I hold in complete disdain.”

Ware takes a less inflammatory view. “It is a prestigious thing to be on Columbia,” he says. “It has a long history, and to be part of that is an accomplishment in itself for me on a personal level. I hope that our success will bring something to this avant-garde part of music. Because it needs all the help that it can get.”

Elliott Smith: Down On The Upside


Somewhere between acquiring a broader musical palette and bouts of Oscar madness, Elliott Smith has become an unlikely pop star. And he did it all by himself. By Matthew Fritch

“Hi, this is Elliott Smith and it’s been 10 years. Congratulations.” As the video camera’s red light flickers out, Smith shoots a wry, sideways grin at me, obviously amused at the multimedia invasion (well, me and the guy with the camera) going on in his dressing room. He’s just flatly delivered his line for a promotional spot marking the anniversary of the venue where he’s performing tonight.

Smith shakes his head. “It’s strange,” he says. “Ever since I got here, they’ve been asking me to do that. I’ve never even been here before.”

Lately, we’ve been seeing Smith in all the unfamiliar places: the Academy Awards, MTV, Entertainment Weekly. And now gracing the cover of a plush, orchestrated pop record for the DreamWorks mega-label.

XO is the album, and its compositions appropriately conjure the intimacy of handwritten notes, heartwarming and heartsick sentiments and, of course, hugs and kiss-offs to lovers, friends and those who just don’t understand. Whether Smith’s migration from Portland, Ore., to Brooklyn last year had any inspirational effect is a question that doesn’t need asking; New York City is imprinted upon the record like a silent partner’s songwriting credit, lyrically hovering in the background alongside the cosmopolitan touches of piano, strings and brass arrangements. It’s safe to say that no one will call XO a folk record.

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Lisa Germano: Geek Love

Lisa Germano has been a sad, sad girl. Lucky for us, she swings moods, misfortunes and malaise into songs that make us hurt so good. By Jason Ferguson

Preconceptions abound about Lisa Germano. The most prevalent is the one that’s always prefaced by “John Mellencamp’s fiddle player” and closes with “she’s really sad.” And, in as much as both of these statements are currently untrue, so are all the assumptions in between. Germano has come a long way since her Bloomington, Ind., upbringing hurled her into a very small corner of pop culture’s spotlight with her most famous neighbor.

“Yeah, a lot has happened,” says Germano mock seriously, “I got my hair cut.”

Indeed, the long tresses this skinny girl from Indiana used to hide behind on stage are gone, replaced with a short hairdo that nearly borders on “perky.” And, as superfluous as it may seem, those locks may have symbolically held as much sway as an inverse Samson.

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Guided By Voices: Robert Pollard, Who Are You?


Bob Pollard is a rock ‘n’ roll traditionalist. And music fans are better off because of it. Like baseball, rock music is in dire need of a return to its glory days. It needs players who respect and embrace the history of their art. It needs participants who understand the importance of performance, and who realize that fans are as integral a part as the players themselves. Pollard knows these things, but, more importantly, he cares deeply about them. Which is why Pollard looks with more fondness to the past than he does to the future.

“Music today lacks love,” says Pollard. “Music from the ’60s talked about love – not personal love, but this universal sort of love. I really miss that. People are afraid to express themselves and express love. In the ’60s, rock was about people getting together and having fun. That needs to come back. Now it’s all bandwagonesque, it’s all glamour. We need to get back to the heart of it.”

For more than a decade, Pollard has succeeded at getting back to the heart of it. The most prolific songwriter of the rock and roll era, Pollard is responsible for more great tunes than the Beatles, Stones and Who combined. In an age where sound outweighs songs and image is more important than talent, Pollard is the melodic (albeit often drunken) voice of reason, the only rock star in a genre of music that takes pride in its obscurity. Pollard personifies the belief that rock isn’t something you do on weekends or after work – it’s your life and it needs to be treated accordingly. Two years ago, Pollard quit his day job after almost a decade and a half, allowing himself the opportunity to rock and roll all night and, naturally, party every day. And his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner.

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Punk In Silk Pajamas: Jawbreaker, Green Day And J-Church


Popcore grows up and out by the San Francisco Bay. By Jamie Kensey

Punk rock wasn’t supposed to be like this. All love and hope, heartstrings and dreams, melody and ache. All shucks and gee whiz. Punk was obnoxious, blaring, political. Fuck you. The Ramones were loud, snotty and rebellious. The Germs were loud, snotty, rebellious and suicidal. Black Flag? Yep, loud and pissed. And San Francisco’s Jawbreaker is … uh, sometimes they’re loud.

Listen up, kids, it’s popcore: churning melodic guitar lines, songs not chronicling our fucked-up world but about our personal demons, friends, family and the inconstancy of daily existence. It has a solid punk core but spreads into all territories of rock, soul and folk without losing its power. Descendants include bands like the Buzzcocks and, well, the Descendents. And the San Francisco Bay Area has almost singlehandedly kept it alive recently, with Jawbreaker and a handful of lesser-known bands continuing the revolution. They still wield a fist, albeit a velvet-gloved one.

“When we started, I had these illusions of being a real art band,” says Jawbreaker songwriter and guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach. “Because of my lack of skill, it ended being punk songs mostly. I really had these ideas of going on noise segments and doing these celestial guitar things.”

The great thing about this revolution is that it’s undefinable. Popcore units aren’t always strictly pop or hardcore. And though they all share a common punk denominator, they scatter in many directions from that starting point, kinda like a pack of huddled roaches when you hit the light switch. Even with the current stigma attached to the “p” word, most of them don’t even mind if you use that as a convenient label for their sound. “They can call us whatever they want, they’re still going to hear us,” says Schwarzenbach.

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