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Clubland: Mars Williams’ avant-garde Christmas carols 

  • Mars Williams. Reed Davis Photography


Friday, December 01, 2017

Christmas songs. They’re generally tidy things, like an ornament on a tree placed just so. Metronomic sleigh bells keep everyone in line.

The music of Albert Ayler, on the other hand — avant-garde jazz with roots in blues and gospel hymns — is like a spiritual earthquake. A great unpredictable and uplifting roar of deep feeling.

Saxophonist Mars Williams had an epiphany years ago when an Ayler melody made him think of a traditional carol. He picked up his sax and played the Christmas tune over the Ayler song and was knocked out by how perfectly the two worked together. 

He built an annual concert around the concept in his home base city of Chicago — Mars Williams’ Ayler Xmas — and he’s bringing the unique show to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Friday at 7:30 p.m. He’ll be joined by an all-star band of fellow adventurers: Joe McPhee on tenor saxophone and trumpet, Jeb Bishop on trombone, Joe Morris on guitar, Nate McBride on bass and Chris Corsano on drums.

“The idea of putting Christmas songs into Ayler tunes, some people are like, ‘Man, this dude’s crazy.’ ” Williams said during a phone interview earlier this week. “But it works, and when people hear it, they’re like, ‘Wow, why hasn’t anybody done this before?’”

Williams has done the show in Chicago for the past eight years with his band Witches & Devils, an ensemble devoted to playing Ayler compositions. But a trip to New Orleans gave him the idea that he could tour the show around the world, collaborating with different top improvisers in each city. It was a dream that’s now a reality: The Holyoke concert is the first show of a 10-date tour that will take him across the eastern U.S. and over to Europe in the next few weeks.

Williams embraces the unknown. He keeps the song arrangements structured but loose, with room for different structured improvisations, and, he said, an extra optional rule just for fun: “Anybody can introduce another Christmas song at any time, and the other musicians have the option to join in with that or not.”

One of Williams’ Ayler Xmas recordings (available now on Bandcamp) features such a swerve. It’s a medley that starts with a boozy and beautiful rendition of “O, Tannenbaum” before growing into a wilder storm that whirls around Ayler’s “Spirits” — until Williams’ sax sneaks in the unmistakable melody of “12 Days of Christmas.” It’s pretty fun to hear an ultra-popular tune suddenly appear, rise up out of the improvised fury, and gain force. The horns join together and raise the roof with partridges and pear trees as the rhythm section tumbles chaos underneath.

“When I’m sending out the arrangements and the charts, I tell everybody, ‘This is just a basic guide, but the idea is to have fun with this,’ ” Williams said. “Yes, I’m a serious musician, and all these guys are serious improvisers and musicians — some of the best in the world — but the idea is to have fun.”

“We’re completely manipulating Christmas tunes differently than you’ve ever heard. If you like Christmas songs, you’ll love this. If you hate Christmas songs, you’ll love this.”

And Williams said the two musicians aren’t as far apart from each other as might seem at first.

“A lot of Ayler’s themes, to me, sound like spirituals — which they are, he was a very spiritual person, 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 between the two things. They each complement each other, the Ayler tunes and the Christmas songs.”

Williams is no stranger to seasonal tunes, since he and his sax are part of a true classic, 1981’s “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses — a song that, after some cajoling from Ayler Xmas fans, he started incorporating into the show.

The MTV generation first met Williams during his Waitresses days, and he has long been a member of The Psychedelic Furs, but he also has his own ensembles (including Liquid Soul, Boneshaker, the NRG Ensemble and many others), and he started his musical journey as a preteen classical clarinetist. He studied the instrument for a decade before picking up the saxophone at age 17.  

Williams lives in Chicago but performs in the Valley fairly often and appreciates the “open-minded audiences,” describing them as “welcoming and warm.” He’s eager to bring his Ayler Xmas show to town. 

“Walking into any free improvisational situation, you play with musicians you’ve never played with, and some you have played with, but you never know what that night is going to be like, because everybody’s bringing something entirely different — the way they feel that day, or what they’re hearing,” Williams said.

“It’s exciting, that unknown, and a little scary. But it’s beautiful.”

For more information about Mars Williams and his Ayler Xmas (including the live album recorded in Chicago last December), plus tour dates, tickets and more, visit MarsWilliams.com.