Mars Williams Credit: Peter Gannushkin

After seven years of interpolating holiday favorites and classic material by free-jazz icon Albert Ayler—including the saxophonist’s screaming gospel fervor—in his annual December concert in Chicago, reedist Mars Williams is expanding the concept in 2017. To support Mars Williams Presents: An Ayler Xmas (Soul What), a raucous new release recorded last year at the Hungry Brain, he’s organized a tour around the U.S. and Europe this month. The performances will feature a revolving cast of players from each locale, but as the new CD makes clear, it will be hard to top the rapport he has with his Chicago compatriots—the personnel of his long-running Ayler tribute band Witches & Devils, who not only know Williams’s improvisational ethos intimately but have helped him develop this wonderful hybrid. The album captures the band deftly underlining familiar themes from Christmas songs such as “Jingle Bells” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” as well as the Hanukkah classic “Ma’oz Tzur” while melding them with the indelible, keening melodies of Ayler staples like “Spirits” and “Truth Is Marching In” in extended medleys. Each one is performed with bruising intensity, feverish interplay, and cathartic, sobbing spirituality as the group chases Ayler’s singular marriage of overloaded joy and gushing release—an approach that transcends any seasonal limitations. The band includes the hurtling rhythm section of drummer Steve Hunt, bassists Brian Sandstrom and Kent Kessler, and pianist Jim Baker. Cornetist Josh Berman and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (in his first Chicago performance since he moved to Kingston, New York, this fall) join Williams in the wild front line.   v