In January powerhouse saxophonist David S. Ware released Shakti (Aum Fidelity), his 23rd album as a bandleader, recorded in May 2008 following a European tour. It was his first new studio disc since 2003, and on it he debuted a superb group with guitarist Joe Morris, drummer Warren Smith, and longtime bassist William Parker. Though Ware’s muscular tone and rigorous style of post-Sonny Rollins motific exploration remained intact, the band as a whole sounded markedly different than the quartet he’d led for the previous 17 years.

That group, which featured Parker and a succession of drummers (Marc Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra, and Guillermo Brown), was distinguished by pianist Matthew Shipp, an imposing improviser who prodded Ware to monumental heights. Together they created wildly dense fabrics of sound–brooding, roiling, violent–whose twin coils of improvisation were so packed with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas that each performance left the listener both exhausted and exhilarated. I remember listening to albums like Flight of I and Godspelized over and over to come to terms with their intensity, and with each spin I heard new details.

In that context, the new quartet’s lighter, airier sound is almost a relief. I’m not suggesting that the music is any less rigorous or substantial, but Morris prefers single-note runs over chords, and his style of harmonic sparring allows for a sense of space that was lacking with Shipp, who liked to fill the canvas. Ware and Morris don’t do a whole lot of simultaneous improvising either; they play together during the themes, displaying a wonderfully lithe, almost breezy postbop insouciance, but yield to one another when it’s time to solo. Likewise, Smith plays with greater restraint and calm than some of his predecessors, and though with Parker storming along beside him, any drummer would find the temptation to stretch out irresistible, Smith breaks out of the tempestuous grooves without veering into pure, coloristic abstraction; he swings gracefully.

And Ware himself often uses a gentler touch in this lineup, since his bandmates leave room for such an approach. Of course, he still sometimes reaches down into the tenor’s gut-wrenching lower register or spits out wild but sustained harmonic shouts, working over simple phrases with maniacal focus. Shakti is a dynamic piece of work, just like you’d expect from Ware, and this new quartet seems capable of growing together in exciting directions.

Unfortunately, the album’s release was overshadowed by some bad news that preceded its release by a few weeks: Ware was in dire need of a kidney transplant. He’d been diagnosed with kidney failure in 1999 and started dialysis that year, but in December 2008 his doctors determined that dialysis had lost its effectiveness and that Ware would die without a kidney transplant.

Word went out over the Internet, and after a couple months of searching and screening, a viable and healthy donor was found, a woman named Laura Mehr. Yesterday Aum Fidelity–Ware’s label, run by his manager, Steven Joerg–announced that Ware and Mehr had undergone a successful transplant surgery on Tuesday, May 12, and that they were doing fine. Ware has begun what is projected to be three or four months of recuperation. Here’s to a speedy recovery for both and a quick return to music making for Ware.

Today’s playlist:

Tarek Atoui, Mort Aux Vaches (Staalplaat)
Jan Martin Smørdal Acoustic Accident, Q.S. (AIM)
Chico Freeman, Morning Prayer (Whynot)
Mônica Salmaso, Nem 1 Ai (Biscoito Fino)
Slits, Return of the Giant Slits (Blast First Petite)