Thursday, December 06, 2018

CD Review: Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas Volume 2

Mars Williams
Mars Williams Presents An Ayler Xmas Volume 2
(ESP/Soul What)

A few weeks ago I was thinking about the upcoming Christmas holiday season and getting a feeling of anxiety. For the first time ever, I wasn't looking forward to Christmas. The holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving, has started to become a reminder of family members who have passed away around this time, some in the past, some more recently. Add in the usual stress that the holidays put on everyone - fighting crowds, worrying about getting the right gift or any gift for people, getting everything together for holiday visits - and the whole thing started to become too much to handle.

When this CD showed up on my doorstep, I felt skeptical. Sure, Albert Ayler's music has been placed in different contexts. Saxophonist Jeff Lederer has combined it, to good effect, with sea shanties (on 2016's Brooklyn Blowhards) and fused Ayler's controversial New Grass album with shaker hymns early this year on the not quite as successful Heart Love. But Christmas music and Ayler seemed like a bit close to a gimmick. (Somehow I missed the first installment of saxophonist Mars Williams' fusion of Yuletide carols and tenor shrieks.)

All that changed while listening to it on the way to work. The shift came during the second track, a live performance in Vienna with Williams and a quartet (with trumpet, bass and drums). Vocalist Christof Kurzmann joins them to sing "O Tannenbaum," in a gentle, calm voice. The music begins to take on a deeper significance when Kurzmann goes into two verses of "Red Flag," the anthem of the British Labour Party, which was written on the same melody. (Robert Wyatt recorded in the '80s.) Now the message has moved beyond parties and beautiful trimmings. By adding that extra song, the music also includes the hopes for a better future, something that's been weighing heavily on my mind all year.

Right as that feeling sets in, the group barrels into Ayler's "Spirits" rapidly digging into the folk quality of it and accelerating it. Before long they're seguing into "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which still sounds like an Ayler theme, especially when Williams gets to "five golden rings."

It was at that point that I realized that taking the joie de vivre of rollicking free jazz and smashing it up against Christmas music really makes me happy. It was a nostalgic feeling but one that threw all the sad thoughts and the stress out the window. They are actually playing music that's indeed the healing force of the universe. Or at least in my personal orbit.

One other track comes from that Vienna performance, in a medley that starts with Ayler's "Universal Indians" and concludes with Kurzmann singing "We Wish You a Merry Xmas." The remaining three tracks were recorded in Chicago with Witches & Devils, Williams' Albert Ayler tribute band. This octet gets even more anarchic in the 15-minute "Xmas Medley," like a band of revelers at the holiday party who have had too much spiked eggnog but still maintain their charm. Another of their tracks includes Ayler's "Bells" in between "Carol of the Drum" (aka "Little Drummer Boy"), "O Come Emmanuel" and "Joy to the World." Williams also makes a personal reference, throwing in a quote of the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping," on which he played the original sax riff.

Williams himself played a big part in blowing away my personal holiday malaise. He recreates the Ayler sound beautifully, with the raspy tone, heavy vibrato and an energy that his horn can barely contain. And, though some might consider this a minus, the recording quality of An Ayler Xmas gets just a little ragged during the loud, free sections - bringing to mind some of Albert's original ESP records.

An Ayler Xmas Volume 2 , co-released by ESP and Williams' Soul What imprint, is mandatory holiday listening. (Presumably the first installment is as well.) It might not be the best thing to play at the office party but it'll cheer up any free jazz fan who might not be looking forward to holiday festivities. My copy will occupy a special place, right next to my Beatles Christmas record compilation and The American Song-Poem Christmas compilation, which can be read about here.

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