RECENTLY, AT THE Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I watched as the David S. Ware Quartet--the best band in current jazz--played an amazing set that combined the finest aspects of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and James Brown. Then I witnessed a soulless crew of paunchy white guys (who looked more like they should be at the Harvard Regatta on the other side of town) render the most mathematically predictable kind of snoozedom imaginable. The crowd, applauding politely, didn't seem to know the difference. This, to me, signified the whole dichotomy of current jazz.

Jazz can't get arrested on Main Street. Most music fans don't even know what constitutes real jazz.

It's partially the critics' fault, because they feel obliged to uphold the air of puffery that surrounds glorified wankers like Ravi Coltrane, if only because he is the namesake of perhaps the greatest saxophone player of all time. To anyone with ears, however, Ware is the logical descendant of Coltrane's giant strides. Ware and his contemporaries--pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker--are doing in the name of "jazz" one of the few truly honest musical experiments happening contemporaneously, and also one of the few that's been progressively ongoing.

Together, the Ware Quartet is probably the best band in the world--jazz or otherwise. This fact is more than adequately borne out by their latest waxing, Surrendered (Columbia). When Branford Marsalis took the reins of the jazz division at Sony, part of the stipulation was that Ware would be brought to the label. Major-label residency has not stilted Ware's progress one iota. The big difference between Surrendered and its predecessor, Go See the World, is the presence of a new drummer, Guillermo E. Brown. Whereas the previous drummer, Susie Ibarra, traded in a lot of subtle embellishments like atmospheric brush strokes and gong-rattles, Brown is a straight-up rhythm machine of the Elvin Jones variety, and his polyrhythms are powering the Quartet to even braver new heights.

While Ware's new album might be the logical starting-off point to explore the "new" organic jazz scene, there are other impressive forays. Matthew Shipp's vehicle, Pastoral Composure (Thirsty Ear), is an amazing tour de force in its own right. William Parker's along for the ride here, as he often is when it comes to Shipp (both of them are also full-time members in the ultimate New York free-radical collective, Other Dimensions in Music). The results are staggering, an album that blends Shipp's natural experimental inclinations with a bluesy feel that evokes everything from classic New Orleans R&B to flamenco flourishes à la Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain.

The trumpet player on Shipp's opus is the talented Roy Campbell, who also shows up on the new Rob Brown Quartet album, Jumping off the Page (No More). Brown is an alto-ist firmly in the Ornette/Dolphy tradition, and this new LP is a thoroughly engrossing squawk-fest with enough soul to keep it from drifting into the realm of noise for noise's sake. No More is an interesting label from Long Island, so "underground" that Amazon doesn't even carry their stuff.

Labels like No More are truly the ESP-Disks of their day. No label epitomizes this more than Aum Fidelity, whose rank within the jazz underground is by far the centripetal factor in this whole saga. Founded by Steven Joerg, Aum Fidelity has strove to give the underground some actual coherence since day one. Besides Ware, the label has released albums by William Parker, Matthew Shipp, Other Dimensions in Music, and the improv unit, Test. The latest releases from Aum include a typically eclectic collaboration between viola player Matt Maneri and the electric jazz guitarist Joe Morris.

Unfortunately, Aum is an isolated fortress of freedom within the constricting confines of the record biz at large. I'd like to think that Ware's signing to Sony is indicative of a stronger commitment on the part of the majors to comprehend and nurture this music, but somehow I doubt it. I'm sure it was simply a case of an artist whose profile at that point had risen so high that he simply could not be ignored any longer (kinda like Sonic Youth with Geffen in 1990). Nevertheless, it's still good news if even one person who goes to see a Ravi Coltrane or Roy Hargrove show on a festival bill gets a taste of the Ware Quartet. Hopefully as the new decade dawns, the tent will continue to expand.

Contact No More at P.O. Box 334, Woodmere, NY 11598. Contact Aum Fidelity at P.O. Box 170147, Brooklyn, NY 11217.

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