Some people can’t get enough Christmas music, but others can’t run away from it fast enough. For more than ten years, Chicago free-jazz veteran Mars Williams (born in Elmhurst in 1955) has been refining a concept that can bring the two camps together under the same roof. Bringing things together is what he does: a prodigal multi-instrumentalist (his tools include most of the saxophone family, clarinets, Autoharp, and a tabletop full of small percussion instruments and toys), he’s played rock with the Psychedelic Furs and the Waitresses, free jazz with the likes of Hal Russell, Peter Brötzmann, and Paal Nilssen-Love, and a bit of everything in the long-running Liquid Soul, whose freewheeling fusion combines jazz, funk, dance music, hip-hop, and more.
Williams has led Witches & Devils, a combo devoted to performing the music of saxophonist Albert Ayler, since the 1990s. But around 2008 he got the idea to combine Ayler’s music—which often subjects simple, folk-derived themes to extremes of timbre and emotion—with traditional Christmas tunes.
Mars Williams presents An Ayler Xmas featuring Witches & Devils and more
Sat 12/14, 7:30 PM, and Sun 12/15, 9 PM, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, $10, 21+
The resulting music is intense enough to vaporize typical holiday treacle, but it’s still recognizably seasonal. Ayler’s hymnlike melodies, which bear names such as “Spirits” and “Truth Is Marching In,” not only sit comfortably next to the likes of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” but can also be combined with them more creatively. Sometimes Williams and his bandmates place a Christmas theme atop of one of Ayler’s songs, and at other times they improvise transitions between them.
“There’s some structure involved. I know certain Christmas songs that I want over the Ayler tunes,” Williams explains. “I have arrangements that are sort of like a map, because you go to this, and then there’s some improvisation here, and then this and that. The map is designed so that you can take multiple roads, multiple directions. It’s not written in stone that, for instance, ‘O Tannenbaum’ has to be played with ‘Spirits.’ ‘O Tannenbaum’ can be played in a different time within the night. And if anybody introduces a Christmas song, then we all have the option to tag along on that, or play something contrary, or ignore it.”
- In this medley, Viennese musician Christof Kurzmann demonstrates that “O Tannenbaum” and the socialist anthem “The Red Flag” use the same melody.
In 2016 Williams tried out this approach in New Orleans with local musicians, and since then he’s taken it on the road around the U.S. and Europe. Most of the time, he brings his horns and his charts to a city and assembles a band with improvisers there who share his appreciation for Ayler. “The cool thing about it is being fresh with each group of musicians,” Williams says. “Everybody’s going to interpret it differently, and it will go where it goes.”
On the 2018 release Mars Williams Presents: An Ayler Xmas Vol. 2 (Soul-What/ESP-Disk), for example, Viennese electronic musician Christof Kurzmann begins singing “O Tannenbaum,” then adds verses from a socialist anthem with the same tune, “The Red Flag.” “It’s always going to be different, and the improvisations are really what’s tying these things together,” Williams says. “Which, you know, was how Ayler’s music was, too.”
Mars Williams Presents: An Ayler Xmas Vol. 3, the first edition to be recorded entirely outside Chicago, is being released by Not Two Records just in time for the holidays. It was recorded in 2018 in Krakow, Poland, with an international ensemble joining Williams: German drummer Klaus Kugel, Ukrainian bassist Mark Tokar, expatriate American guitarist Knox Chandler, and former Chicagoan and rising star Jaimie Branch on trumpet. The performances attest to how well the Ayler Xmas concept travels: The rhythm section brings a particularly muscular energy, and Chandler’s effects-drenched guitar lights the music up like a Christmas tree. Williams and Branch tangle ferociously, but she also keeps him on track during a giddy recitation of “The Night Before Christmas.”
The group from Vol. 3 will reunite for several dates around Europe before Williams comes back to Chicago for two Ayler Xmas concerts with hometown band Witches & Devils: bassist and guitarist Brian Sandstrom, keyboardist and violist Jim Baker, cornetist and violinist Josh Berman, bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Steve Hunt. The shows are at the Hungry Brain on Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15, and each night Witches & Devils will be joined by special guests. Saxophone and clarinet player Keef Jackson and guitarist, mandolinist, and violinist Peter Maunu will sit in on Saturday; Maunu and cellist Katinka Kleijn will play on Sunday. v