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Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Mars Williams (1955 - 2023)

Mars Williams (© Cristina Marx/Photomusix)

By Martin Schray

In addition to Post Punk, I also had a fondness for Pop and New Wave at the beginning of the 1980s. I particularly liked the Psychedelic Furs (who I discovered only with their fourth album Mirror Moves) but not for their guitar riffs (often the main criterion for whether I liked music or not back then), but because of their crazy saxophone. I can still hum songs like “Heaven“ or “Heartbeat“ by heart to this day, especially the saxophone part. The man who played these lines was Mars Williams, who I came across again in the 1990s and later, but this time as a member of the Chicago free jazz scene. Now this great musician has passed away after battling ampullary cancer for over a year.

Williams was born in Elmhurst; Illinois in 1955. His father was a jazz trumpeter who encouraged him to play an instrument and young Mars started learning the clarinet at the age of 10. However, he switched to alto and later to tenor saxophone. He attended Karl Berger’s Creative Music Workshop before studying with the crème de la crème of improvisors like Don Cherry, Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton. In the 1980s - apart from playing for the aforementioned Psychedelic Furs, The Waitresses and Billy Idol (among others) - he was a saxophonist in Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble, which he took over after Russell’s death and where he met Ken Vandermark. In general, Williams was a man of many interests. Also in the 1980s, he co-founded the Funk and Acid Jazz band Liquid Soul and was an active member of the New York City downtown scene, playing with John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Elliott Sharp and Fred Frith. But most of all he was known for his connections in the Chicago scene, where he played with practically everyone - especially with Ken Vandermark in various groups (Audio One and the Chingiale duo, for example) and finally in Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, for whom he composed several pieces. He also was the leader of projects like Witches & Devils, Slam, XmarsX and Mars Williams presents: An Ayler Xmas in changing line-ups. In the last years he was part of excellent bands: The European-American outfit Switchback, for example, Boneshaker (with Kent Kessler on bass and Paul Nilssen-Love on drums), Michael Zerang’s Blue Lights, Keefe Jackson’s Lightly So and the Chicago Reed Quartet. I saw him several times in Germany, where he toured quite often, possibly because he became famous as the featured artist of the prestigious Moers Festival, where he played gigs with Liquid Soul and XmarsX (among others a legendary gig with a broken arm).

Because Williams was such a prolific musician, involved in so many types of music, it’s hard to point to albums that stand out from his oeuvre. You can start with Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble, possibly The Finnish/Swiss Tour (ECM, 1991). And of course, there are all the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet recordings, but especially the only recently released Ultraman vs. Alien Metron (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2022) because Williams composed the track of the single-sided album. Mars Williams presents an Ayler X-mas Vol. 1-5 (on Soul what and NotTwo Records) are great fun to listen to, particularly in the Christmas season. Boneshaker’s self-titled debut (Trost Records, 2012) and Thinking Out Loud (Soul What, 2014) are great trio albums. The two Switchback albums, Live in Ukraine (Multikulti, 2016) and Switchback (Multikulti, 2015) with Wacław Zimpel on clarinets, Hilliard Green on bass and Klaus Kugel on drums are personal favorites as well as the Chicago Reed Quartet’s Western Automatic (with Dave Rempis, Nick Mazzarella and Ken Vandermark). And yes, give Mirror Moves by the Psychedelic Furs a listen.

In a message shared by Williams’ family and friends confirming his death, they wrote: “Until the end, Mars’ inexhaustible humor and energy, and his love for music, pushed him forward. As it became clear in late summer that his treatment options were coming to an end, he chose to spend six weeks of the time he had left living as he had since he was a teenager – out on the road performing night after night. Those last performances with the Psychedelic Furs will live on with all of the other incredible contributions that Mars has made as a person, and as a musician, and that boundless energy will continue to inspire." 

His life was truly dedicated to music. I will miss his soulful tone and hardly anybody could overblow notes like he could. Another great saxophonist gone this year.

Listen to Mars Williams with An Ayler Christmas: 


Lee said...

This loss cuts deep, Mars's voice was so distinct and special (for lack of a better word). Grateful to have so much of his music. As always, we're lucky to be able to spend some time with these artists while we're here.

daniel said...

huge loss!
unique voice, his music will be forever with us!