Back under the big top
September 8, 2005
Over the last decade or so, saxophonist and bandleader Mars Williams had become accustomed to taking a position of leadership in the funk corner of the jazz world. While the Greyboy Allstars were making their West Coast-boogaloo sound in San Diego, and Groove Collective was helping revive groove-jazz around New York, Liquid Soul, the Chicago-based jazz-funk outfit, was getting the Midwest dancing.Beginning in 1994 with a weekly Sunday night gig at Chicago’s Elbo Room, Liquid Soul began spreading the groove across the country and into Europe. The band earned a Grammy nomination for its 2000 CD “Here’s the Deal,” opened numerous shows for Sting, became the first acid jazz band welcomed at the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, R.I., and was dubbed “the single hottest showcase” at South by Southwest by that festival’s hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman.By 2002 or so, however, Williams had tired of even leading his own band. In an interview with The Aspen Times then, he said it was a chore to get his bandmates to practice. More recently, Williams said that “Evolution,” Liquid Soul’s 2002 CD, “didn’t sound like a Liquid Soul album.” In 2003, Williams actually pulled the plug on the band.”We got to a point with the old musicians where we were too complacent,” said Williams, speaking from Chicago, his birthplace and current hometown. “I need people who will work with me and try things.”
Williams himself began trying things, new and adventurous things, at Germany’s Moers Jazz Festival in 2004. After a year in which Williams spent his time playing with saxophonist Peter Brotzman’s Tentet and his own X Mars X project, and “getting a little focus and balance, a little spirituality,” Williams was named featured artist at the Moers festival. The honor includes an opportunity to present five separate projects in Germany, with the idea that the artist will stretch and bend and reinvent himself. Williams played with X Mars X, a rock-jazz band that features electric guitar; a trio with turntablist DJ Logic and bassist Rob Wasserman; and a solo sax gig, performed in a church. He also reassembled Liquid Soul for the occasion, bringing Tommy Klein – the band’s original guitarist, who had been absent for several years – back into the group.It is a new and refreshed Liquid Soul, led by a rejuvenated Williams, that performs tonight at the Belly Up and Saturday as the headliner at the Alpine Jam in Crested Butte. The lineup features relatively new additions, trumpeter Joe Miller, DJ Eddie Mills and drummer Tony “Kick Drum” Taylor, plus Klein, Williams and long-standing MC, Mr. Greenweed.Along with the new faces and attitude, Williams is searching for a new sound. The musical ideas are flowing – “I have way too much material,” said Williams – and he is trying to harness them in a way that paves a new direction. Liquid Soul has begun the process of recording the new tunes, and Williams is discovering that he doesn’t want to cover old ground.”In some ways, I’m putting more edge on the stuff,” said Williams, who recently turned 50. “It’s rawer than the last record, which was pretty slick. There’s more hard-edged guitar.” The new album, which Williams hopes to release next spring, will also feature DJ Logic as part of the core band. Williams has also borrowed a composition from X Mars X, which he calls “a little experimental, with a lot of samples.”
“It’s at the point where I look back at the beginning of Liquid Soul, and it was the start of this, putting a DJ in with funk-jazz,” continued Williams, “us and Groove Collective and the Greyboy Allstars. Now there are a lot of bands doing this, and they’re doing it great. But we have to step up, because we inspired those bands. It’s an honor, it feels great, because that’s what music is all about. But I feel, OK, what can we do that’s a redefining statement – without going too far from what we’ve done?” Circus acts – acrobats and clowns and trained animals – would probably seem like going way, way too far from what Liquid Soul has done in the past. But not the way Williams sees it.
The fifth project Williams brought to the Moers Jazz Festival last year, and the centerpiece of his appearance, was Soul Sonic Circus, which performed six times in Germany. The group comprised 13 musicians, including DJ Logic, Rob Wasserman, Colorado trumpeter Hugh Ragin, three drummers and Wayne Kramer, guitarist from the famed revolutionary rock band the MC5. Joining the musicians on-stage were eight circus performers, at least one of which was four-legged.”The idea was, if you could imagine, John Zorn’s Cobra Piece” – a participatory, multi-media musical game by New York composer John Zorn – “with circus performers,” said Williams. “I’d be ringmaster and conductor and put up signals or cards to signify written pieces of music or texture. There’s a lot of improvisation, very interactive.” Among Soul Solar Circus’ interactive aspects was having band members hold out squeaky dog toys; whichever performer the circus dogs approached would take a solo. Also, the clown would occasionally replace Williams as conductor.Williams says that after the year off from Liquid Soul, and after doing Soul Solar Circus, he is “healthier, physically and spiritually, than I’ve been in 25 years.” That health is reflected in the ideas that are practically spilling out of his head. Williams has tried to bring the Soul Solar Circus to American music festivals, but has had no luck getting promoters to book the large, indescribable act. So he concocted a less unwieldy version of the act, which had a successful debut in Chicago last week at the World Labor Unions Convention.
At this year’s South by Southwest festival, he unveiled a new group, Liquid Logic, that featured DJ Logic and John Popper of Blues Traveler. He has been talking to fellow saxophonists Karl Denson, of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and Skerik, of Garage a Trois, about touring as an all-sax trio. Every Tuesday night he’s in Chicago, he experiments with keyboardist Jim Baker and members of Williams’ NRG Ensemble at the small bar Hotti Biscotti. He is conceiving a tour that would have him fronting two separate rhythm sections, one electric and one acoustic, modeled somewhat after Ornette Coleman’s late-’50s “In All Languages” album.Finally, there is the rebirth of Liquid Soul and its new album. “This is an important record for us,” said Williams. “We haven’t had a record out for three years. Now there’s a lot of pressure. I need to have this record out pretty quick. But I’m at the point where I like these kinds of challenges. I can do what I can do and not worry about the results. I can do the work in my head and not think about if the crowd will like it.”And if the crowd doesn’t like its funk coupled with aerial artists and performing dogs, so be it. Williams does.”I wish I could bring circus performers with me all the time,” he said. “Because it’s so visual.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org