Here’s Ware

David S. Ware’s Live in the World may be a gamble for him and his label, Thirsty Ear, but it’s a treasure for his admirers. This three-volume offering (four hours of music) is a thunderous declaration that consists of three quartet performances: a 1998 radio broadcast from Chiasso, Switzerland, so copious that numbers from it are used to close the other discs; and two concerts from his 2003 European tour, recorded in Terni and Milan, Italy. Pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker are present throughout, while the movable fourth chair adds the supplementary interest of contrasting percussion styles. Susie Ibarra was the drummer in 1998, followed by Guillermo E. Brown. In June 2003, Hamid Drake was brought in as a substitute for five appearances, including the one in Terni.

Ware has occupied an odd place in jazz during the past 30 years, hovering in the shadows between culthood and mainstream acceptance. Among musicians, he is widely respected-major figures from Sonny Rollins to Cecil Taylor have expressed enthusiasm for his work, and Branford Marsalis signed him to Columbia during his abbreviated tenure as an A&R executive. (Ware was his only signing to that label.) After studying at the Berklee College of Music, Ware founded a band in Boston and then relocated to New York, where he made his initial splash with a single solo at a 1974 concert by Taylor’s big band. He emerged as one of the vibrant new voices on tenor saxophone, weaned on free jazz yet highly distinctive in timbre and strategies. Along with Henry Threadgill and David Murray, Ware reconciled avant-garde power playing with the traditions from which it sprang.

Maybe his long apprenticeship as a sideman stalled him, though it should have done the opposite. Ware’s work with Taylor (Dark Unto Themselves, Enja, 1978) and Andrew Cyrille’s undervalued quartet Maono (Metamusicians’ Stomp, Black Saint, 1978; Special People, Soul Note, 1980) emphasized his cavernous sound and uncanny mastery of scales, yet it ended with him driving a cab until the late 1980s, when he returned with his own group. Subsequent appearances and records netted Ware critical success but only marginal commercial viability. Columbia went the way of mergers and dividends, while jazz clubs worried about pleasing tourists. Ware had come along at a time when musicians were determined to undermine complacency and listeners accepted the challenge. Things change.

That is not to suggest that Ware’s music is fearsome, only that it won’t fade into the background or aid digestion. He works wonders in open-air situations, mesmerizing crowds with virtuoso chest thumping, humor and surprise. But bandshell music and even concert hall music breeds a more daring empathy than jazz club music, which thrives on intimacy. Similarly, live music generates a more generous response than recorded music. Live in the World’s “Aquarian Sound” leads off Chiasso with a dramatic vamp, but the vamp goes on for two minutes-a blip in concert time, a longueur at home. Then Ware enters, his vitality fueling a joyride that culminates in sustained multiphonics; by then you become increasingly grateful for that emphatic vamp, which grounds him and the listener. Shipp engages in a boppish reverie and Parker, alternating bowing and plucking, functions like an overseer working from below. Ware’s mammoth cadenza on “The Way We Were” is a highpoint in his discography, one of many in this triptych.

Ware’s quartet constantly changes shape, enclosing duets, trios and solos that achieve a nearly orchestral sovereignty. Parker’s arco solo on “Elder’s Path” (Terni) is a mosaic of rhythmically charged phrases, a composition in its own right, as is his climactic turn on the same concert’s “Sentient Compassion,” which to that point is a kind of modal rubato meditation with Ware skimming the placid currents of his fully interactive rhythm section. On the intervening “Unknown Mansion,” he and Drake conduct a long ingenious dialogue-one of several tenor-drums duets that recall John Coltrane’s and Rashied Ali’s Interstellar Space, this one particularly reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Saturn.”

Yet the best is last: the Milan performance of “Freedom Suite” is longer by half than Ware’s 2002 studio recording and rarely flags. Ware and Shipp double the line on the first movement, before Ware works his way thematically through its melodic/rhythmic units. He favors a few of Rollins’ signature phrases, and when one of them borders on cliche, he trumps it through repetition and redefinition. The others work together and separately-Shipp drops out and then Brown, so that Ware and Parker can go at it alone. Ware’s playing is essentially inside, shaped by references to the melody and Parker’s harmonic underpinning-yet his vocal ebullience is uncontained. He completes his solo with a gnarled glissando-indeed, he ends his every appearance with a notable bellow. Brown has become, over time, both more restrained and intense, like a low crisping flame.

Parker opens the second section with loping swing and a cagey variation on the first theme, played in the deepest pocket of the bass. He introduces a series of scales at the three and four minute marks, before vamping for the entrance of Shipp and Brown-clashing chords and contrary rhythms. One passage in Shipp’s solo resounds like bells and Brown rocks him until Ware enters singing the great descending scale of the second theme, then building to a blissfully woolly solo tracked by Shipp’s ringing chords. The third section is uneven but retains interest in diverse rhythmic foundations and Ware’s yearning resolve, and the fourth vigorously deconstructs the material, with its minor-key denouement, through a logical tenor solo, a tenor-drums cadenza, and a recap that satisfyingly closes an extraordinary interpretation of an extraordinary work.