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«An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4: Chicago vs. NYC»

It is already a tradition. In the last four years and, before Christmas time, Chicagoan saxophonist Mars Williams hits the road, visits the United States and European Cities. In each city, he forms a band with local improvising musicians that celebrates the season with his own version of Albert Ayler gospel-ish marches and songs melted into Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs. Surprisingly, this odd kind of festive combination sounds completely natural and brilliantly effective. Even more so, if counting the versatile and diverse career of Williams, who is known for his work with British new-wave The Psychedelic Furs, free jazz groups like the Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble, Vandermark 5 and Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, the acid jazz Liquid Soul, and occasional work for Billy Idol, Ministry and Massacre.

«An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4», introduces two bands. The Chicogan Ayler tribute band Witches & Devils (titled after Ayler’s album and composition by the same name, released originally as «Spirits», Debut, 1964), which Williams led in the nineties. Witches & Devils already appeared in the first two volumes of this series Williams led in the nineties. And out of Witches & Devils’ holiday concerts grew this unique tradition. This band features alumni of NRG Ensemble – bass player Kent Kessler, bassist-guitarist-trumpeter Brian Sandstrom and drummer Steve Hunt. The New York band includes more familiar heavyweights: trombonist Steve Swell, bass player Hilliard Greene, drummer Chris Corsano, guitarist Nels Cline and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, a member of the original version of Witches & Devils. Each of these groups, like the ones in the previous volumes, creates an entirely unique sound and its own conception of the seminal Ayler legacy and its own projection of year-end holidays.

The Chicago band alternates between rowdy, intense and sometimes chaotic free-jazz improvisations and eruptions to more elegant gestures, mainly by Williams, pianist Jim Baker and cornetist Josh Berman. This band clearly enjoys weaving Ayler’s classics «Truth Marching In», «Spirits Rejoice», «Heavenly Home», «Change Has Come» and «Light In Darkness» with snippets of the Jewish «Ma’oz Tzur», «Hanukka Song», and Christmas favorites like «Jingle Bells», «O Tannenbaum», «The Twelve Days of Christmas», «We Three Kings» and others.

The ad-hoc New York band goes even further and wilder in its improvisations of the Klezmer-Yultide-Ayler-ian songs. Cline is all over the place with his guitar pyrotechnics, totally possessed by this opportunity to dive into Ayler songs, and finds a real soul-mate in Lonberg-Holm, who also likes to bend and distort the sound of his instrument in unpredictable manners. Swell takes Williams to some fierce and tight duels and Greene and Corsano keep pushing the intense commotion. This sextet offers a liberating kind of celebration, full of fun and often, nervous, excessive energy, mainly on the last «Noel Omega – Change Has Come For The Three Kings Who Lit The Tiny Candles In NYC»,  far beyond the previous incarnations of Williams’ Ayler Xmas bands. But, again, this kind of music is painfully needed at this time.

Eyal Hareuveni

Mars Williams (s, toys), Chicago group featuring Witches & Devils and guests: Josh Berman (cor), Jim Baker  (p, viola, Arp synth), Kent Kessler (b), Brian Sandstrom (b, g, tp), Steve Hunt (dr), Katinka Kleijn (c), Peter Maunu (vio), Keefe Jackson (bs). New York City group: Steve Swell (tb), Hilliard Greene (b), Chris Corsano (dr), Nels Cline (g), Fred Lonberg-Holm (c)

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