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Jingle “Bells”: Mars Williams on Christmas carols in the style of Albert Ayler

Chicago reeds player’s Witches & Devils group embark on festive European tour this week

“The idea of this project is to adapt the Christmas carols into the style of Albert Ayler, I speed them up, break them apart, play them loosely, etc. I completely disrupt the traditional approach.”

For almost a decade, saxophonist Mars Williams has been channelling the holy ghost of Albert Ayler into the spirit of Chrismas. His longrunning Ayler tribute group Witches & Devils, which includes Chicago heavyweights such as Fred Lonberg-Holm and Jim Baker, began mashing up traditional Christmas songs with the free jazz of Ayler in 2008. Their live show An Ayler Xmas: The Music Of Albert Ayler & Songs Of Christmas is due to tour Europe this week.

“Albert Ayler gave me the idea! I heard, or thought I heard, a quote of the Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in the beginning of his solo from “Heavenly Home””, says Williams. “I played along with the track and elaborated on the “Merry Gentlemen” theme and it worked beautifully!”

Before his death in 1970, Ayler used the original idea of free jazz – to play what you wanted – to bring many new styles into his music, including marches and New Orleans swing. “Ayler’s melodies and chord structures are deeply rooted in spirituals, Gospel music, Scandinavian folk songs and children’s songs, which all have similar tonalities to Christmas carols,” Williams adds. “Ayler’s music is spiritual and devotional, praising God, and so are most traditional Christmas carols.”

The group stays true to the free music roots of Ayler, using a loose approach to time, raucous soloing and an openended approach to source material that creates launch pads for improvisation. “At times, I incorporate the carols by playing them over an Ayler theme or introducing them in a solo, giving the option for the other musicians to join me or play against it. Never know where it’s going to go.”

Are there any carols that are particularly suited to Ayler’s visionary music? “There are so many!” Williams enthuses. ““O Tannenbaum”, “12 Days Of Christmas”, “Carol Of The Drum”, I could go on and on. For each performance, I seem to be incorporating more Christmas carols. For instance, during a recent performance in New York State, I introduced “Carol Of The Bells” in one of my solos, and guitarist Joe Morris picked up on it, repeating it over and over in a call and response, speeding up, slowing down, and fading to a beautiful, spiritual hymn as the rest of the musicians joined in.”

And do the group break into song when the Christmas spirit takes them? “My horn does the singing!” says Williams. “But, the way I’m approaching this project, using different musicians in each city on this tour, somebody might be inspired. They might inspire me, you never know.”

An Ayler Xmas touches down in Vienna on 14 December, with dates in Paris, Antwerp and Amsterdam to follow.