One of the bigger surprises in the avant-jazz world in 2011 was the resurgence of drummer Muhammad Ali in Planetary Unknown, the new quartet led by tenor saxophonist David S. Ware. For the first time since 1983, a recording boasted the thunderous percussion of Ali, whose work with Frank Wright, Albert Ayler and Noah Howard matched the power of Elvin Jones with the fluidity of Sunny Murray. Other than a 2006 Philadelphia date with Dave Burrell, Reggie Workman and brother Rashied, and a gig subbing for his brother in By Any Means at the 2009 Newport Jazz Festival, Muhammad had languished in obscurity until Ware requested his services.
Planetary Unknown (rounded out by bassist William Parker and pianist Cooper-Moore) incontrovertibly bases its collective caterwauling on Wright’s early ’70s groups (which were themselves directly spawned from Ayler), so it makes perfect sense for Muhammad Ali to be the rhythmic propeller. The question, of course, was if Ali could still be the glue amidst a hurricane of high-energy and high-density sound, and this live performance in Austria, from Aug. 27, 2011, is the proof that he’s barely skipped a beat. In fact, if anything, Ali exhibits an admirable sense of subtlety rarely heard in his previous playing.
Dubbed “Precessional” and consisting of three segments, the piece is a 66-minute tour de force of impressively charged free improvisation. Ware establishes the mood with a frenetic, sonorous solo that catapults the quartet into hyperdrive, as Parker’s bass throbs and struts with ardent fervor and Cooper-Moore’s cascade of notes recalls Bobby Few’s contributions to Wright’s bands. Ali thrusts everything forward with persistently swinging cymbals and perfectly placed snare accentuations, powerful but not overbearing. Throughout it all, Ware-who underwent a kidney transplant in 2009-seems possessed, his tenor expressive, exhaustively probing numerous registers with equal aplomb. It’s hard to fathom that the median age of this ensemble is 66 years old, as they burn with more passion than many who could be their grandchildren. This extremely elevated level of empathic interplay could only be achieved by years of experience and artistic engagement.