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Mars Williams

Mars Williams is one of the finest saxophone players of his generation whose eclecticism has become a trademark. "In many ways he has succeeded in redefining what versatility means to the modern saxophone player," said John Zorn in 1983. Williams' subsequent forays would keep on proving him right. From his days with the Waitresses and Psychedelic Furs to Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble and various collaborations with Ken Vandermark to his success with acid jazz Liquid Soul, Williams has indeed covered a lot of ground. Mars Williams was born in Chicago in 1955 and his father used to play the trumpet. Fond of Benny Goodman and Dixieland, he encouraged his son to pick up the clarinet at age 10, an instrument he would stick to through high-school and college. He would, however, switch to the saxophone (alto first) after realizing that clarinet would not allow him to play the music he had a real interest in. Dissatisfied with college education which would inexorably lead him to a music teacher career, he decided to head for Woodstock and the Creative Music Workshop run by Karl Berger and where he met Roscoe Mitchell and studied with Don Cherry, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Anthony Braxton. Students in his class included Marilyn Crispell, Peter Apfelbaum and Ton Cora, among others. Once his training completed, he moved to Colorado for an introspective period. During his almost two-year stay, he only hooked up with trumpeter Hugh Ragin and saxophonist Spider Middleman who would end up following Williams when he decided to go back to Chicago. There, his next major encounter would be in the person of Hal Russell. Playing with top-40 bands and Hal Russell - with whom he formed the NRG Ensemble - was Williams' musical spectrum during what ended up to be a short intermission in his hometown. Then, Middleman left for Los Angeles and Williams returned to Woodstock with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts while remaining in touch with Russell. The two of them recorded Eftsoons in 1981 that Nessa Records released three years later. While in Woodstock, Williams joined the Swollen Monkeys with Ralph Carney (Tom Waits) and Kramer (Shimmy-disc honcho) among others. The short-lived outfit recorded a full-length album and an EP before disbanding in 1981. At that point, Williams had moved to New York. There, a career- defining moment occurred when he joined the Waitresses instead of being hired by Michael Mantler for the Carla Bley Band. Wiliams played an important part in defining the sound of the period; a new -wave where the saxophone has a new role in music harmonics and brings atonality to the fore. A full-time member of the new-wave outfit until they disbanded in 1984, Williams also branched out to some of the many opportunities New York had to offer, playing with John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Elliott Sharp and even Australian maverick Daevid Allen. In 1984, Mars Williams was asked to replace Gary Windo in the Psychedelic Furs for their Australian tour. This short stint turned out to be a full-time position. Meanwhile, Williams continued to further his activities in the realm of rock though collaborations with Billy Idol, Ministry, Billy Squire and Power Station (with the late Robert Palmer) until he decided to call it quits, the rock n' roll lifestyle and New York's fast pace having taken a toll on him. Once again, Mars Williams headed back to Chicago where he immediately renewed his partnership with Hal Russell and joined the NRG Ensemble. The special chemistry that bound Williams and Russell allowed the NRG Ensemble to reach the peak of its powers, which culminated with a record deal with ECM ("The Finnish/Swiss Tour" and "The Hal Russell Story.") During his tenure with Russell's band, Williams played as a sideman in various bands around the city. This is also the time Williams started to focus more on his writing. The passing of Hal Russell in 1992 would leave a void in Williams's life, but true to his words, Williams pursued the NRG Ensemble with the addition of Ken Vandermark. This was to be the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between the two reed players. At that time, Williams entered one of his most creative periods trying to establish a new scene in Chicago and launching several concurrent projects: Slam, Cinghiale, Witches and Devils (the last two including Vandermark). He also became an original member of the Vandermark 5 in 1996 and of the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Octet (then Tentet.) Meanwhile, Williams pursued other musical interests with Ministry and Die Warsaw but also with his own bands, successively The Action Figures, Act of God and, more importantly, Liquid Soul, a group that originated from weekly jam sessions at the Double Door in Chicago. Liquid Soul pioneered the acid jazz movement. With their punchy horns, hot and aggressive grooves and solos, they also defined the acid jazz sound of the Midwest. Created in 1993 with guitarist Tommy Klein and DJ De La Peña, the acid jazz combo would enjoy great success touring heavily worldwide, performing at President Clinton's second inauguration, opening for Sting at Madison Square Garden and Central Park, introducing the acid jazz sound to major jazz festivals such as Newport and obtaining a Grammy nomination (Best Contemporary Jazz Album category) in 2000 for their third album, "Here's the Deal." After a fourth album, Williams took a sabbatical from Liquid Soul in early 2003, then reformed the band in 2005 and released the new CD "One-Two Punch" for Telarc records in May 2006. Williams has since remained active, writing a lot of new material for his new projects. XMARSX is a hard-edged combo featuring Wayne Kramer (ex-MC5), Greg Suran (Goo Goo Dolls), David Suycott (Stabbing Westward), Fred Lonberg-Holm (Witches and Devils), and Kent Kessler (Vandermark 5, Witches and Devils, Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, etc.). Atavistic released their self- titled album in 2002. He has also formed "Mushroom Massive," a project derived from Liquid Soul but incorporating more improvisational and trance-like elements. The band currently includes DJ Cappo, Tommy Klein, David Suycott and Kent Kessler. Most recently, The Moers Festival in Germany picked Williams as their featured artist for its 2004 edition. Williams presented a new version of Liquid Soul (Tommy Klein, DJ The Dirty MF, DJ Logic, among others,) XMARSX, and the ambitious and ground-breaking "Soul Sonic Circus," an ambitious combination of free-improvised music and circus. The project features The Midnight Circus, a Chicago-based company that focuses on aerial acrobatics and incorporates theatrical elements in its performances, and an all-star band including Wayne Kramer, Greg Suran, Hamid Drake, Michael Zerang, Rob Wasserman, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jim Baker, Hugh Ragin, DJ Logic and, of course, ringmaster Williams.

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Album Discography

Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson


Not Two Records


An Ayler Xmas Vol. 4:...

Astral Spirits


Fake Music

Soul What Records


An Ayler Xmas Volume 2

Soul What Records/ESP Disk



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