AMN Reviews: Mars Williams – Presents: An Ayler Xmas Vol. 5 (2021; Soul What Records / Astral Spirits)

Albert Ayler was unlike other free-jazz pioneers of the 1960s. Notably, he did not strictly play free, as many of his recordings include composed tunes that he deconstructed and improvised over until they became something entirely new. He had a habit of including quotes from folk melodies, marches, and gospel songs in his works, which gave them more than a few hints of familiarity.

Modern-day saxophonist Mars Williams has been able to apply the Ayler Transformation (yes, I just made that up) to traditional Christmas songs and somehow make it work. William’s recordings in his “Ayler Xmas” series – of which this is the fifth – sound both like holiday music and like Ayler at the same time. This is quite an accomplishment, and perhaps sacrilegious to some, but makes for a fun listen. Williams is playfully messing with you and just doesn’t care whether you approve.

But Williams does more than just adapt traditional music in the style of Ayler – he also incorporates Ayler’s own compositions and fluidly switches between the two while leaving room for group improvisation. In a fashion, the result is more free than much of Ayler’s catalog.

This particular incarnation includes Chicagoans Josh Berman on cornet, Jim Baker on piano, viola, and synth, Brian Sandstrom on bass, guitar, and trumpet, Steve Hunt on drums, and Peter Maunu on violin, with Kent Kessler and Krzysztof Pabian splitting bass duties. Of the three long tracks, each a medley / mashup, two were recorded in July 2021 and the other in December 2020. And there is enough hyperactivity therein to keep your brain happy while stirring up old feelings of holiday joy…or cynicism…or something else.

In short, I could listen to Williams’ interpretations of Xmas music through the lens of Ayler at any time of year. No doubt that this recording will be in heavy rotation for the next couple of weeks. Also, Williams is currently touring with one of his Ayler Xmas bands, so perhaps volume 6 will be out in late 2022.