Among the myriad injuries inflicted upon Americans by COVID-19 (though admittedly one of the mildest) is the impossibility of attending your favorite holiday concert. For the past dozen years, Chicago-based saxophonist Mars Williams has hosted a unique variation on that seasonal tradition. Each December he convenes Witches & Devils, his combo devoted to the music of saxophonist Albert Ayler (1936-1970), to play a set or two of ecstatic, free-jazz-style medleys that combine spiritually infused Ayler themes (“Bells,” “Universal Indians,” “Truth Is Marching In”) with holiday favorites (“12 Days of Christmas,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Ma’oz Tzur,” aka the Hanukkah hymn sometimes called “Rock of Ages”). The ensemble will perform this year too, but rather than sharing a room with a live audience they’ll livestream from the otherwise empty Constellation on December 18 and 19. Since 2016, Williams has also spread the holiday joy beyond Chicago by taking the Ayler Xmas songbook on the road, working up its material with like-minded local musicians in New Orleans, on the eastern seaboard, and in Europe. And since 2017, he has released albums culled from these concerts. The first two were recorded in Chicago, and the third was made in Poland with a mostly European band that also featured formerly Chicago-based trumpeter Jaimie Branch. An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4: Chicago vs N.Y.C. pits an augmented version of Witches & Devils recorded in December 2019 at the Hungry Brain against a band that performed at New York’s DiMenna Center six days later.
The usual fellow travelers in the Chicago group (who also play with Williams in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the NRG Ensemble) were joined by violinist Peter Maunu, cellist Katinka Kleijn, and baritone saxophonist Keefe Jackson, which enabled them to persuasively re-create the combination of keening horns, writhing strings, and manic march rhythms heard on the immortal Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village. The ensemble’s sheer size, combined with the core players’ familiarity with the project’s method—which often involves band members spontaneously calling out Christmas melodies to derail an Ayler tune—results in exceptionally fluid transitions and nearly overwhelming emotional intensity. The New York musicians, on the other hand, were relative newcomers to the concept—with the exception of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, who was a member of Witches & Devils for years before moving to upstate Kingston. This may explain the looser feeling of their set, which links the tunes with generous passages of rambunctious free improvisation. Moments of near chaos—at one point trombonist Steve Swell chases after Williams like a guard dog trying to scare off a trespassing reindeer—balance gentler interludes, including a section where Lonberg-Holm and guitarist Nels Cline seem to be singing the aforementioned guard dog to sleep. But the distance they travel away from recognizable themes only makes it more exciting when they break into the next one. v