The big news from Planetary Unknown is that saxophonist David S. Ware is back operating at peak capacity — no small statement — after a 2009 kidney transplant. Last year’s Ware release, Onecept, recorded just months after his surgery, seemed surprisingly robust, but in retrospect Ware was missing the sustaining blast-furnace level that he almost casually deploys at various points during these seven tracks, frequently overwhelming the other three avant-garde jazz luminaries in this group. Suffice to say that only a handful of other saxophonists — Albert Ayler, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and David Murray would be my list — can scrape the gutbucket and scorch the heavens with such thrilling gusto. The result is jaw-dropping moments like the long guttural skronk, fueled by circular breathing, that Ware unleashes about two-thirds of the way through the 21-minute epic, “Passage Wudang.”
Planetary Unknown is bookended by a pair of torrid ensemble workouts. Ware’s choice of horns on the collection steady rise on the tonal scale, beginning on tenor, eventually moving to the alto-like stritch and finally the sopranino sax. And although he is dominant, his cohorts take turns being brilliant foils, especially Ali (brother of Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali and a crucial sideman with Ayler and saxophonist Frank Wright) during the duet, “Duality is One,” where his beats have the warmth of hand percussion without sacrificing force. The same is true of his brushwork on “Crystal Palace” and “Divination Unfathomable,” which have remarkable clout even when the interplay is a much louder maelstrom.
Equally remarkable is that Ali hasn’t recorded in nearly 30 years, and that pianist Cooper-Moore, who did a disc with Ware in 1979, also hasn’t paired up with the saxophonist in decades. More impulsive than Ware’s longtime associate Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore varies his attack from the stab-and-jab of “Passage Wudang” to the wistful placidity of “Divination,” with many of his phrases containing a linear thrust heightened by chord clusters, the musical equivalent of someone running the low hurdles. Ware’s most extensive partnership, with William Parker, continues here, and Parker’s glorious bow work on “Crystal Palace” is one of the few occasions where Ware isn’t automatically the focal point. Ware may be first among equals, but pruning his forays might even enhance the impact of this intrepid veteran quartet, should they decide on a second outing.