Avant Xmas: Williams Merges Holiday Music, Ayler Tunes

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Mars Williams will tour to promote a new album that melds holiday music with Albert Ayler tunes.

(Photo: ReedDavisPhotography.com)

Jazz and Christmas have gone together like egg and nog for decades, and for some musicians the engagement goes far beyond throwing a seasonal tune into the set list in December. Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall, Tony Bennett and Ramsey Lewis have all delivered an album’s worth of seasonal favorites, and how many people learned first about swing through Vince Guaraldi’s music for A Charlie Brown Christmas?

This year, saxophonist Mars Williams adds a welcome twist to the yuletide season with Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas, a spirited, unique tribute to the saxophonist Albert Ayler (1936–’70).

The album, which Williams self-released, was recorded last year at the Hungry Brain in Chicago by the saxophonist and his long-standing Ayler repertory band, Witches & Devils. Each track is a medley that combines seasonal favorites like “Jingle Bells,” “Angels We Have Heard On High” and the Hanukkah song “Ma’oz Tzur” with Ayler chestnuts, such as “Spirits” and “Truth Is Marching In.”

The band’s performance style—which favors high-energy horn solos, spacy keyboard flourishes and rhythms that shift between march time, swing time and no time—nods toward the sound that Ayler projected with the ensembles he toured with during the last five years of his career.

Born in Elmhurst, Illinois, in 1955 and based in Chicago since 1990, Williams’ work as a leader and collaborator covers a vast stylistic range. He has played full-bore free jazz with Hal Russell, Peter Brötzmann, and Ken Vandermark; and he’s mixed jazz with r&b and rock in Liquid Soul and X_Mars_X.

He currently holds down a weekly gig with free improvisers Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and he’s a member of the rock group Psychedelic Furs.

Williams has shared the stage with trained dogs, dancers and acrobats in Soul Sonic Circus: There’s a photo on his website of him doing some high-flying wire work, suspended high above the crowd.

Ayler’s music had a formative influence upon Williams, who learned about it first-hand from one of Ayler’s close collaborators, trumpeter Don Cherry, during workshops at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York.

During a phone interview from his home, Williams explained, “I really liked the spiritual approach of [Ayler’s] music and his melodies, how he would go from this melodic structure and beautiful, gospel-type tonalities, into just screaming and reaching out to some higher force. That resonated with me; it became a very big influence in the direction that I started going with my music when I transitioned from clarinet to playing saxophone.”

But Williams didn’t notice the similarities between Ayler’s folk-rooted melodies and Christmas music until years later: “I was playing some Ayler stuff, just practicing and playing solo, and as I was playing it I started morphing into playing a Christmas tune. I was like, ‘This has the same kind of tonality as some of Ayler’s music.’ And then I was listening to another tune of Ayler’s and I was writing it out, transcribing. I believe it was “Heavenly Home.” As I was transcribing it, he goes into this solo and I was like, ‘Wow, that one little thing he did there was like “Merry Gentlemen.”’

Williams decided to meld the two seemingly disparate elements together in a program he arranged in 2008 for Witches & Devils. Since then, the band’s annual shows have become a Chicago tradition. After Williams began playing winter gigs in New Orleans, he tried it out with musicians he knew in the Crescent City.

He found that his approach to the material—which combines charted themes with freely improvised passages that can be redirected by anyone on the bandstand—was highly portable.

“So I thought, ‘I’ve been collaborating with musicians in different cities in Europe, Scandinavia and the United States. There are all these musicians that I like to play with and some that I’d like to play with but never have. I wonder how this would work if I took the same idea that I brought to New Orleans and Chicago, and took it to different cities.’ So that’s what I’m doing this year. I’ve chosen musicians who are also familiar with Ayler’s music because that’s the common thread to all of this.”

The list of artists linked by that thread includes talented players such as Nels Cline, Jeff Albert, Didi Kern and Niels Van Heertum.

Williams will tour the States and Europe during December, playing with a different line-up in each city. The tour kicks off on Dec. 1 at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, Massachusetts, with a top-notch ensemble: Mars Williams (saxophone, toys), Joe McPhee (trumpet, saxophone), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Nate McBride (bass), Joe Morris (guitar) and Chris Corsano (drums).

The tour concludes on Dec. 23 at Bimhuis in Amsterdam, where Williams will perform with another amazing ensemble: Wolter Wierbos (trombone), Eric Boeren (cornet), Wilbert De Joode (bass), Jasper Stadhouders (guitar) and Frank Rosaly (drums).

For more info on the new album and the tour, visit Williams’ website. DB




On Sale Now
July 2021
Julian Lage
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