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Friday, December 1, 2017

Mars Williams Presents - An Ayler Xmas (s/r, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

I don't know what you all think, but it seems to me that a free jazz (of the fiery variety) holiday album is right on cue. I'm not in the mood for sweet, gentle, or traditional this year, there is just too much going on that is not sweet, gentle, or traditional, but I'm also not quite ready to forgo holiday cheer entirely. So, why not add a primal honk to some timeless Yule-tide melodies? I almost guarantee this is the mashup of 'Twelve Days of Christmas' and Albert Ayler's iconic 'Spirits' that you did not realize you had been missing.

Chicago-based saxophonist Mars Williams has been hosting a holiday show in the Windy City for the past several years. This year - I suppose sensing that the time was right - he has released Mars Williams presents: An Ayler Xmass, which is a live recording from the 2016 show at the Hungry Brain. The band, bestowed with the Ayler inspired name 'Witches & Devils' is: Williams on sax, toy instruments, Josh Berman on cornet, Fred Lonberg-holm on cello, Jim Baker on piano, viola, Arp synth, Kent Kessler on Bass, Brian Sandstrom on bass, guitar, and trumpet, and Steve Hunt on drums.

The album opens with 'Ma'oz Tzur (Hanukkah) - Truth Is Marching In - Jingle Bells', which is exactly what the title suggests. The song begins with a straight ahead take on the opening melody, serious, but with a dash of irreverence, then the Ayler workhorse appears, followed by a blast of an improvisation from Williams. The drums rumble behind him and the piano seems slightly out of sync, adding its own splash of color. The group gains ever more momentum until they break down into a rhythmless free-playing section that in turn ushers in 'Jingle Bells'. If you had any doubts about the concept, they must be erased by now. This is holiday music as we need it now.

To my ears, the deconstructed 'Jingle Bells' and reconstructed Ayler theme is just warm up for 'O Tannenbaum - Spirits - 12 Days Of Xmas'. A dark moan from the cello foreshadows a forlorn take on the first melody, setting the stage for the syncopated and upbeat saxophone solo which follows. Quotes from the '12 Days Of Xmas' melody begin appearing mid-way through the track before splitting off again, this time into an excellent cornet solo. The closing track 'Angels We Have Heard On High - Omega Is Alpha' begins with solo piano, but the gentle melody is festooned with Monkish intervals, Taylorish rhythmic stabs, and sustain. The horns blend perfectly with their take on 'Omega is the Alpha', bringing even more grit to the tune than in the original.

As I've said earlier, this is the right album for this season. It mixes the fire and passion of Ayler with the timeless melodies of the holidays in a serious mashup that highlights the best of both. It may not be playing at the nearby mall's Santa's workshop, but adventurous listeners, you finally have something to cue up for the Holidays this year.

In addition, Williams is taking the show on the road this year, working with a changing cast of players. After swinging through the East Coast and Chicago he'll be taking the show to Europe (See dates:


Colin Green said...

I’m a little confused. What does adding a few Christmas melodies actually do, to Ayler’s music, Christmas melodies, or our understanding of either. It’s not like we’ve forgotten them, or won’t be hearing them again. Or an I missing the point, and it’s all deeply ironic, which of course, is a sufficient end in itself, irrespective of the particular irony. The problem is, there’s only so long I can listen to music with one eyebrow raised.

Paul said...

You're a mean one Mr. Grinch! :-)

Colin Green said...

Bah, humbug. And I suppose that’s the point about Christmas albums. It’s contrary to the spirit of Christmas to be too hard on them, and they’re largely forgotten once the hangovers have passed.