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«The Music of Albert Ayler & Songs of Christmas»

Every city has its own traditions and Chicago is known for its annual holiday concert of local hero, reeds player Mars Williams’ long-running Albert Ayler tribute band Witches & Devils (titled after Ayler recording from 1964). These concerts offer joyful medleys of Christmas songs (and some Hanukkah songs) matched with Ayler’s free jazz anthems. If this kind of tradition sound strange to you it is only because you are not familiar yet with the strong gospel spirituality of many of Ayler compositions. No worries, Williams – who studies with Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, played with The Psychedelic Furs, Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet and Ken Vandermark and led Liquid Soul – would gladly familiarize you with Ayler’s Xmas timeless pieces. His uplifting annual celebration can melt the hearts of die hard free jazz aficionados who detest any connection to such traditions.

Williams released last year a first live recording of these holiday concert, captured in Chicago’s Hungry Brain club on December 2016, on his own label, Soul What Records («Mars Williams Presents – An Ayler Xmas», 2017) and was invited by Ayler’s label, ESP-Disk, to release a follow-up album. «An Ayler Xmas Vol. 2» was recorded live, again at the Hungry Brain club with Witches & Devils and at the Viennese Porgy & Bess club during a short European tour with Austrian Musicians.

The concept remained the same, still, brilliantly effective. Witches & Devils – cornet player Josh Berman, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, keyboards player Jim Baker, bass player Kent Kessler, bassist-guitarist-trumpeter Brian Sandstrom and drummer Steve Hunt – alternates organically between loose yet highly intense interplay to touching cries of lyricism, especially on the 15-minutes «Xmas Medley». Williams blends wisely Ayler’s iconic «Love Cry» with a cover of The Waitresses’ early eighties hit «Christmas Wrapping», as he played in the original recording (later covered by many, including the Spice Girls). The 17-minutes medley of «Carol of the Drum – Bells – O Come Emmanuel – Joy to the World» highlights the ritualistic, gospel-ish essence of Ayler music.

The pieces with the Austrian band – trumpeter Thomas Berghammer, bass player Herman Stangassinger, drummer Didi Kern and Christoph Kurzmann on the lloopp software and vocals – suggests a more experimental course, leaving the gospel vein aside but with a unique spiritual flavor of its own, more reserved and dark. Kurzmann delivery of the German pious Christmas song «O Tannenbaum» is thoughtful and even melancholic, transforming this ancient carol into a human right anthem, but immediately afterwards Williams leads this band to a powerful version of Ayler’s «Spirits» that quotes the English carol «Twelve Days of Christmas», concluded with an intense solo of Williams. The short «Universal Indians» matched with «We Wish You a Merry Xmas» that promises a nervous holiday season, but one that will keep your ears ringing with joyful sounds.

Eyal Hareuveni

Chicago Band, witches & Devils: Mars Williams (s, toy instruments), Josh Berman (cor), Fred Lonberg-Holm (c), Jim Baker (p, viola, ARP synth), Kent Kessler (b), Brian Sandstrom (b, g, tp), Steve Hunt (dr), Jeb Bishop (tb). Vienna Band: Mars Williams (s, toy instruments), Thomas Berghammer (tp), Herman Stangassinger (b), Didi Kern (dr, perc), Christoph Kurzmann (lloopp, v)

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