The premise sounds dicey: a free-jazz icon makes a record to showcase his compositional skills and invites classical musicians to improvise on the tracks. Add a digital synthesizer to the mix, and it's even dicier. On David S. Ware's new album Threads, the premise almost works. The album features his indomitable New York working band -- Matthew Shipp on keys, Guillermo E. Brown on drums and William Parker on bass -- plus two classical musicians: Daniel Bernad Roumain on violin and Mat Maneri on viola. When the musicians are working together or stepping back to highlight small group interplay, the album works. When the strings get out of hand, though, you'll be reaching for the skip button.
The album starts off on the right foot with 'Ananda Rotation.' In free tempo, Parker dances in arco style (with bow) around Brown's rumbles and tinny crashes, while Shipp provides an airy, cinematic atmosphere with his breathy synthesizer. It sounds like a mix between the beginning of a noir film and the end of a live Allman Brothers Band song. Ware's meaty, velvety tone jumps out front immediately, delivering athletic, harmonically daring runs. Maneri and Roumain tangle delicately with Ware.
'Sufic Passages,' begins with a bang. Parker's insistent Latin ostinato, Brown's driving rimshots, and Shipp's asymmetrical chord progression are irresistible. The groove is mangled, however, when Maneri and Roumain begin improvising. They squealed for so long that I began to convince myself the two must have something to say. But then I heard one of them do a run straight up and back down the major scale. Yikes. From this point on, it sounded less like a violin and viola and more like two pieces of Styrofoam being rubbed together.
'Weave I' and the closer 'Weave II' are Ware/Brown duets, and both players turn in mighty performances. Ware's seemingly limitless creativity is amply evident here, and Brown keeps up admirably. His cymbal work alone is worth the listen.
Surprisingly, the two most valuable players -- Ware and Brown -- are absent from the best song on the album, 'Threads.' This simple, elegiac motif is basically a succession of whole notes. Shipp is barely detectable, allowing the swelling, shaky, mournful tone of the violin and viola to ride right on top of Parker's arco bass. The coalescence of wooden timbres adds a slight autumnal fragrance to this doleful, wintry piece.
Unfortunately, there is too much of a good thing here. 'Threads' and what seems to be its companion piece, 'Carousel of Lightness,' both stretch unjustifiably past 11 minutes. If Ware was out front, it might have been compelling, but the strings run out of juice rather quickly.
Still, the album is worth a listen. Ware's compositions are hauntingly lovely, Brown and Parker are at the top of their game, and the strings add a human texture to the rhythm section's ruminations. Threads is sequenced well, beginning with a spiritual, searching introduction, landing on a groove, and moving to an ecstatic saxophone and drum dance and back to two reflective pieces before ending with a reprise of the sax/drum spirit dance.
Within the sequence, however, the strings strike out repeatedly, and the novelty of the digital synthesizer wears thin. It could be worse; Shipp's synth work on 'Ananda' and 'Carousel' certainly adds to the mood. But a piano would have complemented the mix of timbres perfectly on the album's slower tunes. It remains to be seen whether this is a one-off indulgence or if Ware can push this ensemble to achieve its potential.
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