Context matters. What we understand, and how we feel about it, is shaped by what surrounds it. Take, for instance, the venerable Christmas carols that Mars Williams and his all-star sextet delivered to about 90 revelers at Gateway City Arts on Friday, December 1.
We all know the songs: “O Tannenbaum”, “Noël”, “12 Days of Christmas”, “Good King Wenceslas”. We’ve heard them our whole lives, in banks, churches, super markets and on sidewalks. But it seems safe to say that none of us has heard them through the filter of the distinctive lightening rod that was Albert Ayler. A 1960s titan of the New Thing in jazz, Ayler had a blues drenched attitude on the tenor saxophone that writer Larry Kart called, “the largest human sound I ever heard.”
Most Christmas jazz music has little spiritual power. Mars Williams’ Ayler Xmas was quite the opposite. I heard these beautiful themes as if for the first time, imbued with a potency missing from Perry Como’s work. This was a cleansing, an antidote to the cheapening of this music by corporate and consumer interests.
The Chicago tenor saxophonist Mars Williams has been channeling Ayler for eight years with his band, Witches & Devils. “A lot of Ayler themes sound like spirituals,” Williams recently told the Hampshire Gazette’s Ken Mauiri, “and a lot of his melodies are based on gospel and Scandinavian folk songs, and a lot of Christmas music came out of that area. To me, it’s a perfect marriage.”
The sound produced by Joe McPhee, tenor sax, pocket trumpet, Jeb Bishop, trombone, Joe Morris, guitar, Nate McBride, bass, Chris Corsano, drums and Mars Williams, was inundating. The three horns played sweetly, like some off-kilter Salvation Army Philharmonic. Then the three horns caterwauled with escalating energy, stoked by the fabulous rhythm section. Williams’ wide vibrato and controlled altissimo shrieks bore an uncanny resemblance to Ayler’s distinctive sound.
There was a centrifugal trajectory for much of the evening. A full-throated, “traditional” opening would speed up, then launch to the heavens. In the middle of this unbridled energy, the ensemble took a page from the playbook of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and performed a “sound piece.” Williams played thumb piano, toys and little instruments, while the band colored the proceedings with subdued, abstract gestures. It was a welcome respite to the fun-filled cacophony that preceded it.
Williams had an “aha moment” years ago when he picked up his saxophone while listening to Christmas music and realized the affinity between the worlds of Albert Ayler and the ubiquitous carols. The seasonal melodies, including the Hanukkah song, “Ma’oz Tzur”, were woven, medley-style, with Ayler themes like, “Truth is Marching In,” “Spirits” and “Bells”. The fit was seamless and made perfect sense.
Williams’ Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert in Holyoke was the first of ten, each with a different line-up. His December 10th gig at the Hungry Brain in Chicago, where An Ayler Xmas (Soul What Records, 2017) was recorded, will feature his home-boys from the record. His performance in Antwerp will be with four musicians he’s never met.
Joe Morris and Williams have met, but had never played together. The veteran guitarist, who has an extensive discography and a long list of accomplished former students, thrived in this setting, issuing two extraordinary unaccompanied solos and some of the most interesting comping I’ve heard in a long time. After the show Morris told Williams how easy and fun it was. “There was so much for me to do,” he said.
For all the free blowing and loose togetherness within the pieces, the arrangements required precision, some at break-neck tempos. Although Williams had sent the musicians charts in advance, the two-hour rehearsal prior to the concert was essential to the bands’ tight performance.
The virtuosity of the musicians, and their embrace of Williams’ vision, meant that the music was full of passion and good tidings, never trite or sentimental. The music, finally rescued from its drab misuse, transformed into free, spiritual music.