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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.


Article: Album Review

Alma Tree: Sonic Alchemy Suprema

Read "Sonic Alchemy Suprema" reviewed by Karl Ackermann

New York native Ra Kalam Bob Moses grew up in the same building as Max Roach, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. Early on he saw performances by many of the best jazz drummers in history, including Roy Haynes, Rashied Ali, Milford Graves, Billy Higgins, and Ed Blackwell. As a teenager in the mid-1960s, he played with ...


Article: Radio & Podcasts

Mars Williams, Bro / Danielsson / Mazur & Andreas Willers

Read "Mars Williams, Bro / Danielsson / Mazur & Andreas Willers" reviewed by Maurice Hogue

There's a noticeable tilt towards new European releases in this episode, highlighted by Danish guitarist Jakob Bro with two of his idols, trumpeter Palle Danielsson & percussionist Marilyn Mazur for a new album, Strands; German guitarist Andreas Willers and his trio Derek Plays Eric, ratchet up the heat on their latest; Aut Records sent along new ...


Article: Radio & Podcasts

The Christmas Show with Norah Jones and Mars Williams

Read "The Christmas Show with Norah Jones and Mars Williams" reviewed by Jerome Wilson

This holiday show features Christmas-related jazz, some of it warm and cozy, some of it anything but. Artists heard include Norah Jones, Mars Williams, Benny Goodman, 3D Jazz Trio, and John Coltrane. Playlist Jerry Granelli Trio “Christmas Time Is Here" from The Jerry Granelli Trio Plays Vince Guaraldi and Mose Allison (RareNoise) 00:00 Host ...


Article: Play This!

Michael Leonhart Orchestra: Silent Night

Read "Michael Leonhart Orchestra: Silent Night" reviewed by Ludovico Granvassu

Conceptually, I find holiday music puzzling. How can it be that, year after year, it keeps being churned out? Even by jazz musicians, who are usually not driven by commercial considerations? Then why not spring-break albums? Or something more meaningful like World Oceans Day jazz music? Or Martin Luther King day songs? I presume ...


Article: Album Review

Chicago Edge Ensemble: The Individualists

Read "The Individualists" reviewed by Mark Corroto

Let's trot out the old New York versus Chicago rivalry. Just like with their sports teams (Jets vs. Bears, Knicks vs. Bulls, etc.) music fans feel a need to chose sides. It has been like that since Louis Armstrong left the Windy City for the Big Apple in 1924 and Sun Ra in 1961. Sure NYC ...


Article: Radio & Podcasts

The 2022 Christmas Jazz Show

Read "The 2022 Christmas Jazz Show" reviewed by Jerome Wilson

Christmas Day has passed but it is still the holiday season so here is my Christmas show for this year featuring all kinds of holiday-related jazz tunes from the sacred to the very secular. The musicians heard on the program include Mars Williams, Diana Krall, Babs Gonzales, Nnenna Freelon, Jimmy Smith. and Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O. ...


Article: Album Review

Albert Ayler: At Slugs’ Saloon 1966 Revisited

Read "At Slugs’ Saloon 1966 Revisited" reviewed by Mark Corroto

With Albert Ayler it has seemingly always been “what If." What if he had survived that plunge to his death in the East River in 1970? Setting aside the question of whether he was murdered or committed suicide, how would he have altered the course of music if he lived beyond those 34 years? At the ...


Article: Album Review

Rodrigo Amado This Is Our Language Quartet: Let The Free Be Men

Read "Let The Free Be Men" reviewed by Mark Corroto

If you are not hip to Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, where, as they say, have you been? He has garnered acclaim for many years now, with his own Motion Trio, Lisbon Improvised Players, The Wire Quartet, Luís Lopes' Humanization 4tet, and in duos with Chris Corsano and trios with Kent Kessler and Paal Nilssen-Love. If, though, ...


Article: Multiple Reviews

The Pandemic Sessions: Solos, Pt. 1

Read "The Pandemic Sessions: Solos, Pt. 1" reviewed by Mark Corroto

Part 1 | Part 2 The entire world was in lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis and of course, that includes musicians. Unable to tour and record with their various ensembles, many prepared solo projects (some recorded before the virus struck) for your listening pleasure. Most of the music is very personal, as if the ...


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