AMN Reviews: Mars Williams – Presents An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4: Chicago vs. NYC (2020; Astral Spirits)

In what has become a twisted tradition, saxophonist Mars Williams puts together groups in various cities late each year to perform his unique variations on mashed up holiday music and free jazz ala Albert Ayler. This release is a double album encompassing Chicago and New York performances from December 2019.

In addition to Williams, the Chicagoans include Josh Berman on cornet, Jim Baker on piano, viola and ARP, Kent Kessler on bass, Brian Sandstrom on guitar and trumpet, and Steve Hunt on drums, along with a few guests. The New Yorkers were Williams, Steve Swell on trombone, Hillard Greene on bass, Chris Corsano on drums, Nels Cline on guitar, and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello.

One would think that a combination of Ayler and Xmas music would be a disaster of global proportions. But it is not. In fact, Ayler’s outside-oriented tunefulness can be directly applied to traditional melodies, such as The 12 Days of Christmas, Jingle Bells, Carol of the Bells, and so on. In addition to making this astute observation, Williams also arranges medleys of these pieces, reinterpreted with free jazz interludes and blowouts. Thus, on these recordings, the holiday spirit pokes its head out from time to time but gets immediately smashed by Williams’ hammer of musical blasphemy. You hear twinges of the Xmas music, a lot of Ayler, all put together in an irreverent – and yet joyous – fashion.

On this go-round, each group gets just less than an hour, and there is a fair amount of overlap between the pieces covered. But since each group was given plenty of room to improvise, this results in very different performances coming from the Chicago and New York outfits. Particularly, the Chicago crew is more hard-edged, while the New York ensemble tends toward the atmospheric (with some intense interplay between Cline and Lonberg-Holm in particular). But both provide a wailing, cacophonous take on holiday music.

Of course, this year will be different. It is unlikely that there will be a 2020 version of Ayler Xmas, as live performances are still questionably safe in most parts of the world. Still, as the decorations start going up and socially-distanced gatherings take place, don’t hesitate to have your own atypical holiday celebration with Williams and company. Like the previous three volumes, this edition of the Ayler Xmas recordings is a mind-bending romp and comes very highly recommended.