Mars Williams presents:

An Ayler Xmas
Soul What Records SWR 0003

Looking for that perfect seasonal gift for someone who follows Free Jazz, but is still conventional enough to celebrate the winter holidays? An Ayler Christmas may be what you need. Organized by Chicago saxophonist Mars Williams, involved in ensembles ranging from the NRG Ensemble to Ken Vandernark’s bands, his septet performs traditional fare mixed with tunes composed by saxophonist Albert Ayler during his short life (1936 -1970). Befitting holiday sentiments the tracks are played with a maximum of joy mixed with a modicum of irony.

Like Williams, the other participants are top-flight Windy City improvisers. They include former NRGers Brian Sandstrom on bass, guitar and trumpet and drummer Steve Hunt. Bassist Kent Kessler is known for his work with Vandermark; cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm has probably partnered half the musicians in the advanced music world; while multi-keyboardist Jim Baker and cornetist Josh Berman are nearly ubiquitous in Chicago. Baker’s resourcefulness is particularly welcome since he can add ghostly synthesizer modes to introduce “O Tannenbaum – Spirits – 12 Days of Christmas” and output a pseudo-harpsichord version of the first melody on “Angels We Have Heard On High”– Omegas is Alpha” with the same off-handed aplomb with which he contributes the polyphonic mish-mash later when the Ayler lines take over those tracks. Lonberg-Holm can sometimes play conventionally, but mostly, as on “Ma’oz Tzur (Hannukah) – Truth is Marching In – Jingle Bells” creates rippling triple-stopping scratches. Kessler and Hunt keeps the often foot-tapping rhythms moving; Berman adds connective vamps to saxophone and cello solos, while Sandstrom shores up foreground or background.

On each track Williams makes the logical connection between the melodies appear obvious. Although he snarls, spreads and slurps New Thing simulations throughout, the arrangements confirm that the CD is 21st century emulation not a 1965-stle imitation. This is made clearest in the final moments of “O Tannenbaum – Spirits – 12 Days of Christmas”, when following a textural-stretching solo from Berman Williams segues into “12 Days …” with a perfect Energy Music trope, using circular breathing to hold notes in elevated dog-whistle territory for an extended period. Instructively, this climatic highpoint ends with him quoting first the carol’s refrain, then the Ayler head.

It’s likely that Ayler would have appreciated this set. A religious fundamentalist, who used biblical references in his song titles and played with devotional fervor, the saxophonist even recorded an LP of reinterpreted standards and spirituals.

Unless your intended in a Grinch or a Scrooge you won’t go wrong giving this CD. And if it’s refused you score again, because you can keep the CD for yourself.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ma’oz Tzur (Hannukah) – Truth is Marching In – Jingle Bells 2. 3. Angels We Have Heard On High – Omegas is Alpha

Personnel: Josh Berman (cornet); Mars Williams (tenor saxophone, toy instruments); Jim Baker (piano, viola, Arp synthesizer); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello); Kent Kessler (bass); Brian Sandstrom (bass, guitar, trumpet) and Steve Hunt (drums)