Sunday, December 24, 2017

Mars Williams Presents - An Ayler Xmas (Soul What Records, 2017)

Normally I find Christmas music sentimental and vile, but this was a very pleasant surprise. Saxophonist Mars Williams is leading a skilled team that incorporates some seasonal themes and grafts them on to melodies developed by the legendary saxophonist Albert Ayler. Ayler was famous for using short snippets of folk tunes, gospel ballads, even anthems and marching band sounds as grist for his ferocious free jazz mill. Williams has brought together a stellar squad, consisting of Josh Berman on cornet, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Jim Baker on piano, viola and Arp Synthesizer, Kent Kessler on bass, Brian Sandstrom on bass, guitar and trumpet and Steve Hunt on drums. This is a nimble and free spirited band that can tackle the themes and the free improvisation, beginning with "Ma'oz Tzur (Hanukkah) - Truth Is Marching In - Jingle Bells" a massive medley that melds the ancient music with the hyper-speed tumbling melody of Ayler's "The Truth Is Marching In" which was the glorious centerpiece of the classic Ayler album Live in Greenwich Village. There is a sudden and beautiful opening for piano with Baker developing ringing chords and grounding the music to a shared history. He is joined by trumpet and horns as the intensity of the music begins to ramp back up with skittish free playing and instrumental interplay, with everyone coming together led by raw and meaty saxophones which suddenly and almost comically break into the theme of "Jingle Bells." It's a moment of levity that shines a light on the group's wit, and gives them running room for the big finish with a section of furiously bowed strings which leads the group into the second medley "O Tannenbaum - Spirits - 12 Days Of Xmas." Again we see traditional carols used as frames for the Ayler theme in the middle, beginning with a slow ramp up by a stately reading of the first theme. The classic Ayler line "Spirits" is a bracing jolt which leaves a wide open playing field for the subsequent improvisation, led by Williams rough and ready saxophone charging through the ranks. The improvisation is harrowing and thrilling, and tumbles into the final theme, twisting and turning as the twelve days are blasted apart in a fun and loving fashion. Berman is given space for a fiery cornet solo aided by rolling drums and piano, with the full band folding back in and putting a lot of emotional heft into the music. There is subtle and ringing piano to open the closing medley, "Angels We Have Heard On High - Omega Is Alpha" shading the silence with droplets of crystalline sound, then adding storms of crashing chords to build the drama further. Horns gradually enter as the music turns to the Ayler theme, building a powerful and raw foundation, gradually developing into a  whirlwind of music that bursts forth with massive wails of unaccompanied saxophone. The brass builds in and the music reaches a startling crescendo that would have made the honoree proud. The theme is proudly restated and the band rips through the powerful conclusion of this most unexpected by highly recommended album. An Ayler Xmas - Bandcamp

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