Mars Williams, a saxophone player known for his work as a member of the Waitresses and later the Psychedelic Furs, died Monday at age 68.
His hometown newspaper the Chicago Tribune first confirmed Williams’ passing and reported that the cause of death was ampullary cancer. Williams was diagnosed with the rare cancer a year ago.
Williams’ sax was a key element of the Waitresses during the group’s short but impactful two-album tenure in 1980-83, heard on the signature songs “Christmas Wrapping,” “Square Pegs” and “I Know What Boys Like” as well as saxophone-heavy deep cuts like the title track of their “Bruiseology” LP.
The Waitresses’ split roughly coincided with Williams being asked by the Psychedelic Furs asking him to sit in for their absent resident sax man on an overseas tour in 1983, which turned into a tenure that extended through 1989. He then resumed his work with the Furs from 2005 through his final tour dates with the band, which wrapped up just last month October.
Most of Williams’ work fell on the jazz side, however, particularly with ensembles with an experimental bent.
Among the dozens of groups he played with, Williams was for 25 years a member of the Chicago group Liquid Soul, which picked up a Grammy nomination for best contemporary jazz record in 2001. “Poised to rattle your headspace, Chicago’s premier funk-jazz ensemble Liquid Soul have been combining bebop with hip-hop since 1994 with muscular horns, tongue-cutting rappers, and turntable-infested rhythms,” wrote the Village Voice.
Downtown jazz legend John Zorn wrote liner notes for an album Williams did with Hal Russell in 1984 and called him “one of the true saxophone players — someone who takes pleasure in the sheer act of blowing the horn. This tremendous enthusiasm is an essential part of his sound, and it comes through each note every time he plays. Whatever the situation, Mars plays exciting music. In many ways he has succeeded in redefining what versatility means to the modern saxophone player.”
Among the rock and jazz musicians Williams played with live or on record, as listed on his website, were Billy Idol (on the “Rebel Yell” tour), the Killers, Power Station, Wayne Kramer, Ministry, Bill Laswell, Charlie Hunter, Dirty Projectors, Billy Squier, DJ Logic, John Scoffield, Kurt Elling, Jerry Garcia and the Untouchables.
Williams’ unique sensibility could be found in how every year, up through 2022, he led what was billed as “an Ayler Xmas Tour,” combining the music of free-jazz great Albert Ayler with Christmas carols.
Williams led or participated in many other ensembles as well, including the NRG Ensemble, Trio No Mas, the Chicago Reed Quartet, the Mars Williams Music Book Orchestra and Boneshaker. Among his better-heard recent recordings was a sax solo on Kesha’s cover of “Children of the Revolution” on a T. Rex tribute album produced by the late Hal Willner.
The musician was born in Elmhurst, Illinois in 1955 and came up playing classical clarinet for 10 years, under the influence of his trumpet-playing father, before switching to saxophone. He cited Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker as his first major influences, falling under the sway of Ornette Coleman later on.
Williams had been sober for 20 years and was active with helping struggling fellow musicians through the MusiCares program.
A show this coming Saturday night at Chicago’s Metro had been designed as a benefit for his medical care, but will now serve as a celebration-of-life event. Richard Butler, Zachary Alford and Rich Good of Psychedelic Furs, Ike Reilly and Jeff Coffin of the Dave Matthews Band are expected to sit in on a concert led by Williams’ longtime bandmates in Liquid Soul.