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In recent years saxophonist Mars Williams has been all over the map. From his early all-out recordings with the NRG Ensemble, to the slippery funk outfit Liquid Soul, to hard blowing with the Peter Brotzmann Tentet, Williams has been incessantly restless. And rest assured, nothing has changed. We like that.
Williams' high-octane unit XMARSX unites him with collaborators old and new. An outgrowth of the rock/jazz band Slam, the sextet leaves no stone unturned. Funk, jazz, energy music, and rock unite here in a fresh kind of fusion which strives for integration instead of postmodern juxtaposition. It smells strongly of punk sensibility, standing weird and proud among those who cling weakly to their old ways.
The record breaks out with the up-tempo melody of "The Worm," a piece that recalls some of the saxophonist's finest work with Ken Vandermark in the reinvented NRG Ensemble. While the tune rests firmly in a funky groove, each player explores the outer limits of sound. Midway through, Williams lays out a screeching solo over funk guitar and percolating drums, only to dissolve into rapid-fire guitar runs on the path to the abyss. Just before the piece implodes, it returns to the theme and concludes on a unison note. Somewhere between order and chaos, XMARSX has occupied new territory.
The next piece, "The Finger," opens with a downtempo swinging melody, accelerates into pure energy, then settles into a racing groove complete with walking (running!) bass line and more guitar pyrotechnics. A couple of spaces open up in the middle of the piece, opportunities for lyrical melody and a brief free improv interlude. Each player pokes and prods each other in the kind of intimate conversation that only an experienced unit can pull off.
While not for the faint of heart, this record retains a fresh accessibility for listeners rooted in rock and funk. It's just the kind of combustible combination that dares to be categorized and fails righteously. It's been a while since a group with this kind of energy and audacity appeared on the scene. XMARSX is a true masterpiece for the 21st century, and that's not a term to be taken lightly.