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Mars Williams presents An Ayler Xmas @ Hungry Brain, Chicago

For many years Witches & Devils, the long-running Albert Ayler tribute band led by saxophonist Mars Williams, have existed mostly as an excuse to get together and perform an annual holiday concert. This year Williams put the group’s name aside and is simply calling the event the Sixth Annual Albert Ayler Xmas Show—but the content hasn’t changed. For these memorable concerts, Willams merges a variety of Christmas songs with the indelible repertoire of free-jazz titan Ayler, who brought a scalding intensity to tunes rooted in gospel and spirituals. It may sound silly, but the performances are no joke, and they produce a seriously joyful noise. The band tackles warhorses like “O Tannenbaum” and “12 Days of Christmas” in the same smoldering fashion as their take on Ayler: the rhythm section bubbles and generates a kind of levitating intensity during the wonderfully expressive, multilinear theme statements, while the horns state familiar melodies in loose cries and the embellished lines of each player pull apart and coalesce in a naturalistic frenzy. Williams designs clever medleys that appropriate the pulse and feel of particular Ayler tunes as the band rips through a greatest-hits lineup of holiday tracks. This year’s group features cornetist Josh Berman, drummer Steve Hunt, cellist and guitarist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassists Brian Sandstrom and Kent Kessler, and keyboardist Jim Baker.

— Peter Margasak