AMN Reviews: Mars Williams – Presents an Ayler Xmas Vol. 2 (2018; ESP Disk)

Hang around the Chicago creative music scene long enough and you’ll run into Mars Williams – probably on a regular basis. Whether playing with one of his many bands or attending a show as a fan, Williams is a recurring fixture. One of these groups that does not get much recognition is Witches & Devils, which plays sporadically and mostly on holidays. The seemingly ridiculous premise of the outfit is to combine the free jazz of Albert Ayler with Christmas songs. This, their sophomore release, provides that the proposition is far from absurd, and instead approaches the sublime.

Recorded live over two sessions with two different groups, Ayler Xmas Vol. 2 deftly combines Ayler’s unconventionally aggressive and spiritual stylings juxtaposed with traditional melodies and tunes. Three tracks were recorded by Witches & Devils in Chicago, the band consisting of Williams on sax, Josh Berman on cornet, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Jim Baker on piano, viola, and Arp, Kent Kessler on bass, Brian Sandstrom on bass, guitar, and trumpet, and Steve Hunt drums. The other two went down in Vienna with Williams, Thomas Berghammer on trumpet, Hermann Stangassinger on bass, Didi Kern on drums and percussion, and Christof Kurzmann on lloopp and vocals. The larger Chicago group provides more diversity and atmospherics, while the Vienna ensemble stays relentlessly busy and offers up a bit of singing.

As might be expected, Williams and company rarely allow the holiday carols and songs to go undisturbed, as they insert more than a little blistering chaos. As a prime example, the second track is a medley of O Tannenbaum (with vocals and background improv), an uncompromising version of Ayler’s Spirits (rapid-fire bent notes and all), followed by a brief rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas that is all Ayler. Another high point is the Chicago group’s dense take on the woefully underrated Love Cry.

This recording is probably not for your next office party, unless your office is far more interesting than mine and you don’t mind being accused of blasphemy. But Williams pulls off an admirable job of keeping the spirit of Ayler alive almost 50 years after his death, not to mention making a combination that sounds silly in theory work remarkably well in practice. Two thumbs up (three if you’re big on Ayler).

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