Countless jazzmen over the years have paid the bills with session work on pop recordings: Sonny Rollins sold the Rolling Stones a few pricey notes; Branford Marsalis blew wispy sweet nothings for Sting; Joshua Redman laid down horn charts on the new Me’Shell NdegeOcello album. Still, it’s rare to see a jazz musician make a real go of it in the pop world, perhaps even rarer than the reverse. Yet Chicago saxophonist Mars Williams–late of the Waitresses and the Psychedelic Furs, currently of the accessible acid-funk combo Liquid Soul and five other local jazz outfits–has crossed the line not once but several times.
Williams is probably best known to Chicago jazz fans as a longtime member of the NRG Ensemble, the wild and woolly free-jazz quintet started in the late 70s by the late eccentric Hal Russell. A native of Chicago who’s been playing since he was ten, Williams first encountered Russell playing free-music duets with his dog around 1978. “I’ll never forget that moment,” Williams reminisces. “It was a textural piece and he brought his dog onstage and started blowing his horn. The dog just looked at him, cocking its head while Hal blew this big squealing noise. After a while he finally gave up and turned around, and then the dog let loose with this moan. That was it–I had to play with Hal.”
A small NEA grant took Williams away from Chicago, first to study with the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Roscoe Mitchell in Madison, and later to attend the influential Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York. He wended his way down to New York City, and quickly became involved with downtown regulars like Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, and John Zorn. But it was a regular stint with the Waitresses, the ironic new wave band best known for the hit “I Know What Boys Like,” that gave him his first taste of commercial success. As that band started to collapse, Williams began playing with the Psychedelic Furs and ended up recording and touring for three of the group’s biggest albums. He also worked with Billy Idol and the Power Station before burning out on the lifestyle. “I got too into drugs and partying, so I had to move away from New York,” says Williams simply. “I was getting tired of it.”
Williams never regretted his foray into rock. “It was cool because I got to play the way I normally played,” he insists. The way he normally plays, however, is anything but normal. Highly influenced by the free-jazz legend Albert Ayler, Williams exploits ear-piercing harmonic tricks like overblowing and split tones. As were Ayler’s, his more extreme machinations are rooted in the effusive saxophone bar-walking tradition of early R & B.
Upon returning home in 1988, Williams rejoined Russell’s band, which slowly gained attention, released two albums on the ECM label, and made several European tours before its charismatic leader passed away in September 1992. At Russell’s request, Williams had pledged to keep the unit together, and with him as de facto leader and Ken Vandermark as Russell’s sax replacement the group has released two more terrific albums. Williams also leads Witches and Devils, a muscular Ayler-repertoire band, and the rock-tinged jazz quartet Slam, and plays in the Vandermark 5, whose forthcoming debut will be released by aggressive rock indie Atavistic. Last Saturday afternoon Williams and Vandermark played gritty, avant-garde jazz to a small but enthusiastic record-store crowd as the reed duo Cinghiale. The next evening Liquid Soul packed the dance floor at the Double Door.
The ordered chaos on Cinghiale’s recent debut, Hoofbeats of the Snorting Swine–rapidly exchanged, complicated riff-oriented passages braided with joyfully unhinged extrapolations–stands in stark contrast to the tightly contained funk of Liquid Soul. Where the twain meet is in Williams’s R & B-drenched playing. “I don’t think I change my style in any of the different contexts,” he says. “It’s just that what’s going on around me changes. I like playing stuff that has boundaries, but I also like stuff that has no boundaries.” At its inception a collaboration between Williams and DJ Jesse De La Pena, the ten-piece Liquid Soul formed in 1993, inspired by the sounds emerging from New York’s Giant Step club, where bands mixed hip-hop rhythms with hard-swinging jazz. As the group developed an original repertoire and tightened its attack in weekly Sunday performances at the Elbo Room, audiences got bigger and more enthusiastic. Late last year Liquid Soul took up residence at the larger Double Door, added rappers like Dirty M.F. of Rubber Room and singer Omega to its stage show, and released a self-financed, self-titled debut album.
So far this year, Liquid Soul has made its first New York appearance, garnered several positive notices in Billboard and attracted a steady stream of label interest, and played Dennis Rodman’s birthday party at the Worm’s own request. But Williams, who thus far has handled the bulk of the group’s booking, publicity, and management, learned the value of being level-headed during his time in New York. “Who knows what’s gonna happen,” he says evenly. “Major labels say, ‘We love you,’ fly in to see us, then nothing might happen. You just can’t be sure. I’ve got to count my blessings. I’m able to play my music and people like and appreciate it, and I’m making a living.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.