Is gale-force saxophonist David S. Ware mellowing? Probably not, but he is certainly employing a broader palette than he did in his younger days. For Shakti, his first studio album since 2003, he has assembled a new band. Gone is pianist Matthew Shipp, who helped sculpt the Ware sound, replaced with guitarist Joe Morris, who plays with much more subtlety, giving Ware more breathing room for his own solos. Ware’s longtime bassist, William Parker, is here, and the quartet is completed with drummer Warren Smith.
If music could be described in geometric terms, we might say that most of Ware’s previous outings have been characterized by sharp lines and acute angles; his music has always had a certain harshness to it. Shakti is rounder. It’s not just the band but Ware’s own playing; it curves and weaves more than it blows holes in walls. There’s little here that approaches the brute force of, say, his take on “The Way We Were.” “Nataraj,” the 18-minute heart of Shakti, is like nothing Ware has produced before. The melodic sketch is bare, so free improvisation rules the tune as usual, but Ware comes off as the restrained gentleman while Parker saws his bow across his bass and Smith batters away at his kit. There are times when Ware and Morris play almost sweetly in unison, though the saxophonist does unleash a wee bit of fury before the 18 minutes are up.
Still, this isn’t the David S. Ware of a decade ago. That’s neither a complaint nor a celebration. Ware’s old storminess helped him produce some of free jazz’s finest works. Shakti is no less fascinating. But it is a new direction for Ware, one that promises to be equally fulfilling.