Essential New Music: Mars Williams’ “Mars Williams Presents: An Ayler Xmas Vol. 5”

Mars Williams has the kind of name that, once heard or read, is not forgotten. But even if you don’t know who he is, you may well know how he sounds. In the 1980s, the Chicagoan played saxophone with the Waitresses and the Psychedelic Furs, and he still tours with the latter band to this day. Williams has also fronted pan-genre party band Liquid Soul since the 1990s. 

But he’s also a committed free-jazz musician who’s participated in ensembles with Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, Paal Nilssen-Love and Hal Russell, among many others. His playing, which combines a massive, highly emotional tone with a tenacious handle on evolving melodies, evidences the influence of the late, great Albert Ayler, whose music Williams has celebrated in a band called Witches & Devils. 

Many of Ayler’s compositions were derived from African-American and European folk tunes, and one holiday season, Williams got the idea to combine them with Christmas and Hannukah favorites. The idea resonated so strongly that it’s grown from a single annual concert in Chicago to a traveling event staged with local musicians throughout the U.S. and Europe, as well as a series of albums compiled from live recordings. In 2020, the pandemic made travel impossible, but Williams convened the Chicago band to stream a couple shows from the Constellation club. 

One track on Williams’ fifth volume of holiday favorites comes from last year’s concerts, and the other two were recorded the following summer. Despite the absence of an audience with which to share the cheer, these latest performances exude ample helpings of exuberance and high energy. Each track is a medley that slaloms between carols, free improvisations and Ayler themes. For example, “The Divine Peacemaker Plays Dreidel In Frightful Weather” begins with the dueling horns of Williams and cornetist Josh Berman, which eventually resolves into a passing reference to “Let It Snow.” Jim Baker’s synthesizer takes the sleigh ride briefly into space, and then the whole ensemble divebombs back into the old Cahn/Styne favorite before alternating between a manic march through Ayler’s “Divine Peacemaker” and a roaring snippet from “Frosty The Snowman.”

Playfulness abounds throughout Vol. 5, which is paced like the Grinch’s sleigh ride down that cartoon mountain. And if you live in the right town and are ready to pull a Santa mask over your nose and mouth, Williams has taken the Ayler Xmas show on the road again, visiting Washington, D.C., New York City, Madison, Wis., and Chicago between now and December 18.

—Bill Meyer