When asked to characterize his work, alto saxophonist/flutist Carlos Ward laughs. It's a broad laugh, but also a mysterious one: There's no way of knowing if he's being congenial or expressing wordlessly the impossibility of defining his work and motivations. "Well, I hope people can understand it and accept it," he finally allows. "There's a lot of music--if I wanted to go into one direction only--that I could write. But I don't try to limit myself to any particular idiom or whatever. I just try to write. I write dance music. I write music that could be considered Top 40. I write jazz. I write serious music--but I don't like to use that word." He concludes, "I don't like trying to describe what I do."

You can't blame him. Ward's work as a bandleader and sideman covers a vast area and involves a wide variety of musical comrades. Moreover, no two writers have been able to agree on what makes Ward such a worthy artist. His playing has been called atmospheric rather than highly virtuosic--which means that he avoids lilting runs in favor of figuratively grabbing the air with his sound. In short, he doesn't pussyfoot around. Among his other gifts is the ability to conform his musical personality to fit any musical setting without losing his individuality.

Born 54 years ago in the Panama Canal Zone, Ward grew up in Seattle, where he played saxophone in budding Fifties-era rock groups. In the early Sixties he joined the Army and was stationed in Germany. While there, he took advantage of opportunities to play with avant-garde jazz musicians such as Karl Berger and Don Cherry. This experience served him well: Upon returning to the U.S., he joined forces with John Coltrane, Sunny Murray and Sam Rivers, and later with the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association and a funk band called B.T. Express. The monikers of other Ward associates are guaranteed to perk up any creative-music fan fond of name-dropping. They include Carla Bley, Rashied Ali, Don Pullen, Paul Motian and Roswell Rudd.

Ward's highest compliment for his side work came from saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, Cecil Taylor's longtime associate and musical collaborator. After learning that he was terminally ill, Lyons chose Ward to replace him in Taylor's quartet. For many people, this might very well have been an unnerving appointment to accept. After all, Lyons was Keith Richards to Taylor's Mick Jagger. They went together. Who would want to try to fill that space?

"I don't see it that way at all--I can't," Ward counters. "I don't know what it means when people say that. Jimmy is the one who recommended me to Cecil before he passed. I didn't consider that I was taking anybody else's place. Nobody ever takes anybody else's place. I am a musician. I am there to do what I can do. I'm sorry, but I can't think of it any other way."

Ward made two wonderful recordings with Taylor's quartet (Live In Bologna and Live in Vienna, both on the Leo imprint) and will appear locally with two members of that group, drummer Pheeroan Aklaff and bassist William Parker. "I had hoped that band would continue, because I thought it was a very good lineup, a very good group," Ward says about the quartet. "But we were not able to continue working together. So I have always remembered what we were able to do together, and I've always wanted to work in a so-called free music context with both Pheeroan and Parker."

Although Ward has spent most of his career supporting other musicians, his 1988 live disc, Lito, demonstrates what an effective bandleader he can be. His reputation will no doubt be enhanced by Faces, a new release on Ward's own Peull Records label that features Aklaaf, Kirk Lightsey and Alex Blake. Ward will have few opportunities to promote this latest offering, however; he's slated to travel to Europe as part of a Don Cherry project dubbed NU.

While an adequate explanation of Ward's unique abilities remains elusive, a distinctively spiritual element is central to his playing. His tone is not ethereal--instead, it's as solid and tangible as the faith from which it flows. Nonetheless, Ward is reticent to offer a pitch for a specific doctrine. "It would be very hard to say I am a religious person and leave it there, to say nothing else," he says. "Every day I live with God. So if you want to put that in, okay. That's the way I try to live. That's the way I am."

The Carlos Ward Trio, featuring William Parker and Pheeroan Aklaff. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 10, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo, $8.00/$6.00 students and members, 477-5977 or 758-6321.


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