Friday, December 11, 2020

Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4: Chicago vs. NYC (Astral Spirits, 2020)

Nothing makes me gag quite like the cloying faux sentimentality of Christmas music. With the exception of outliers like The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” and The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” The only holiday music that I can wholeheartedly endorse is the yearly installment of Ayler Xmas albums led by saxophonist Mars Williams. Wedding traditional hymns and carols to the exploratory free jazz of Albert Ayler is not as strange as it may seem when you consider that many of Ayler’s best known themes were built from simple folk and gospel melodies. As Williams Xmas conception grew more popular, he was able to add performances and this album features two specific group performances from the 2019 tour in Chicago and New York. The first four tracks are from the Chicago performances with a group that includes Josh Berman on cornet, Jim Baker on piano, viola, and arp synth, Kent Kessler on bass, Brian Sandstrom on bass, guitar and trumpet, Steve Hunt on drums, with guests Katinka Kleijn on cello and Peter Maunu on violin. This group is extremely powerful, and reminiscent of the band that was recorded for Albert Ayler’s Village concerts in the mid-1960’s. Launching into the concert with a thrilling medley “The Hanukkah-Xmas March Of Truth/For 12 Days Of Jingling Bells/With Spirits In Chicago” which takes one of Ayler’s most apocalyptic themes, “The Truth is Marching In” with its massive, ever increasing saxophone led theme and yoking it to holiday music and then exploding it all into a wonderful free collective improvisation ia an audacious act, but then incorporating Ayler’s spiritual jazz theme “Spirits” to cohere the lengthy performance together makes it all the more special. “Heavenly Home and Bashing of the Bells” combines two Ayler compositions “Heavenly Home” and “Bells” with some wonderful percussion playing to create a succinct and lively medley. When they move to New York, the band shifts to Williams on saxophones with Steve Swell on trombone, Hilliard Greene on bass, Chris Corsano on drums, Nels Cline on guitar and and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello. This smaller, more nimble group is able to take the music in exciting new directions as they take a crack at “The Hanukkah-Xmas March Of Truth/For 12 Days Of Jingling Bells/With Spirits In NYC” stretching it out to an epic near half hour, as Cline and Lonberg-Holm create excellent textures on their instruments, while Corsano and Green are a rhythm team that are in constant flux and response, and Williams as the sole horn is erupting in cascades of golden sound. This group closes the album with “Noel Omega/Change Has Come For The Three Kings Who Lit The Tiny Candles In NYC” which again demonstrates how a modern approach to the Ayler method of free improvisations from the merest wisps of melody can allow players the wide canvas they need to create thrilling music with exciting ensemble playing and uplifting solo sections. This album worked very well, and may be the best yet of the Ayler Xmas offerings that Williams has produced. Albert Ayler’s shadow is vast, but the musicians her honor him, and take the true spirit of Xmas back from the corporations and politicians by generously giving us wonderful music when we need it most. An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4: Chicago vs. NYC - bandcamp

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