Witches & Devils return to play the music of Albert Ayler and Christmas



Mars Williams
  • Reed Davis
  • Mars Williams
I had no intention to write several posts about Christmas music, but here I am doing it for the third time in the last week. The winter solstice concerts by percussionists Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang are well-known holiday traditions in Chicago, but saxophonist Mars Williams and his long-running band Witches & Devils have quietly developed one of their own. On Wednesday night at the Hideout the group will play its third annual holiday concert, adding songs like "Joy to the World" and "Away in a Manger" to its long-established repertoire of compositions by the singular free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler (the band's name is taken from one of his tunes).

Williams formed the band back in the late 90s to play Ayler's deeply spiritual music, flanked by fellow reedist Ken Vandermark, drummer Steve Hunt, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, pianist Jim Baker, and bassist Kent Kessler. The group released one terrific live album, Empty Bottle Chicago, for Knitting Factory Records in 2000, but not long after that the project ceased to be a working concern, so it's been great that Williams has revived it in this unique fashion since 2010. The band plays those holiday pieces in the spirit of Ayler's music, blending raucous, keening gospelized intonation, split tones, and high register cries, usually over roiling free rhythm. And like the group's inspiration, the tunes are often arranged in medleys, sometimes fused to Ayler compositions like "Spirits," "Bells," or "Truth Is Marching In." For Wednesday's concert Williams will be joined by Hunt, Kessler, Baker, bassist Brian Sandstrom, cornetist Josh Berman, and cellist Harrison Bankhead.

Below you can listen to an exclusive track recorded at last year's concert (it fades out after around nine minutes).

Today's playlist:

Dickie Landry, Fifteen Saxophones (Unseen Worlds)
Darius Jones Quartet, Book of Mæ'bul (Aum Fidelity)
Joel Grip, Didier Lasserre, and Niklas Barnö, Snus (Ayler)
Irène Schweizer, To Whom It May Concern: Piano Solo Tonhalle Zürich (Intakt)
Chamaco Ramirez, Alive and Kicking (Fania)

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