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Beyond Acid Jazz

An Interview With Liquid Soul’s Mars Williams

By Brian L. Knight

Liquid Soul is the mid-west’s answer to the acid jazz craze. During the first five years as a band, Liquid Soul has experienced some phenomenal growth. Liquid Soul began somewhat as a jazz/hip-hop "open mike" and now has blossomed into a ten piece tight as hell musical assault. Over the last few years, Liquid Soul has played for Dennis Rodman’s birthday party, was the first acid jazz group to play at the Newport Jazz Festival and played for the Presidential Inaugural Ball.

Liquid Soul consists of Mars Williams (saxophone), Dirty MF(rapper/ MC), Ron Haynes(trumpet), John Janowiak (trombone), Rickie Showalter(bass), Dan Leali(drums), Tommy Sanchez (guitar), Newt Cole(percussion), Ajax (DJ), and Simone(vocals). The band members have diverse background in musical styles ranging from Simone’s experience on the Broadway production of Rent to the jazz background of Ron Haynes. Like their styles, the band also covers quite a range in age as well: from a youthful 24 to a veteran 43.

The elder statesman and bandleader for Liquid Soul is Mars Williams. Williams is a true reflection of the band for he has experienced quite a diverse history in the music industry. Williams began his musical career following the path of free jazz where he played with the great Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Vermont’s own James Harvey. Afterwards, he headed on down the road of rock and roll and played with the Waitresses, Psychedelic Furs and Billy Idol. Now he is tackling the upbeat, danceable jazz of Liquid Soul.

This past week, the Vermont Review caught up with Williams as he was eagerly cheering his hometown team’s slaughtering of the Utah Jazz. Despite Utah’s nifty and apropos name, Williams gave Utah little sympathy. After pulling the reluctant Williams from the game, we sat down and talked about the growth of Liquid Soul, the band’s famous gigs and life on the road.

Brian Knight: How did Liquid Soul first come together?

Mars Williams: It started with another band I had called Act of God, which was a five-piece jazz/funk/rock band. It was the first band I put together when I moved to Chicago. I went back to New York City to visit and I had seen the Giant Steps Nights at the Metropolis. They would have a DJ and people like Roy Ayers would come down and sit in. Different musicians would be jamming over what the DJ was playing. The Groove Collective came together during the Giant Steps Nights. The guitarist for my band said to me 'the music that I am writing right now is perfect for this acid jazz thing". After I saw what was going on with Giant Steps, I thought it would be pretty cool. The original DJ for Liquid Soul, who is not with us anymore, was doing the same thing in Chicago. We kind of put our things together. What we did, that actually got Liquid Soul to be Liquid Soul, was that we started a regular night of our own in Chicago. We chose Sunday, because nothing else was happening. We did it at the Elbo Room and it started with nobody coming down. Slowly, more people started coming and it eventually turned into a scene. We had people sitting in all the time. Some of the (Chicago)Bulls would come down....like Pippen. It was the place to be on Sundays. It started with a lot of free styles (improvisation) and slowly started to grow as a band.

BK: With a such a evolution of different players, who were coming and going, it must be difficult to define the first moment that Liquid Soul came together.

MW: We did a couple of restaurant gigs where we were doing freestyles and jazz standards over hip-hop beats. When I really started writing for the band, I would say that the Elbo Room days were the official beginning for Liquid Soul. We eventually outgrew the Elbo Room. Now we still so Sundays at the Double Door. This is a very rare Sunday that we are not there.

BK: I guess we are honored to have you. You are missing the Bulls in the finals as well as your weekly gig. What do you think the difference is between a collective and a band?

MW: Wow.......I really don't know. Liquid Soul is a band because there is a lot of input from everyone. We have established a sound because of all the individual personalities, styles and backgrounds. I have been involved with so many different styles of music and I love playing all different kind of styles. That is why Liquid Soul is so perfect. There is a strong contribution from everybody involved. I am still the leader. There are ten people in the band so there has to be somebody who brings it together. I have an idea of what I want. I can take all of these different elements and tie them together.

BK: Do you think, in five words or less, describe Liquid Soul's sound?

MW: Beyond Acid Jazz

BK: Where does the name Liquid Soul come from?

MW: A fluidy <sic> of different styles and sounds and personalities. The thing about Liquid Soul is that we stress fun at our shows. The term acid jazz is so loose these days. That is why I like "Beyond Acid Jazz". Yeah, we do a little Hip-Hop and jazz together, but we also do a little bit of Latin in there....a little funk, R&B. We have world music influences, we do some eastern music sometimes. A little free avant-garde on top of a beat. We still stress fun and people dance. For me, I feel really honored to be around so many great musicians who have stuck together for so long. The core of the band has stuck together this whole time.

BK: What are your other roles as bandleader?

MW: I write most of the material. I produce it. I steer the direction. I have the idea and concept of where the music will go. From that concept that I have introduced, we have all have grown together. It is like a basketball team, the Bulls for instance. You have Michael Jordan leading the team. The longer you play together as a team, it becomes not just Michael Jordan. He is the leading pivot point. He has developed the direction of the team but everyone has grown into the team.

MW: You have had a pretty diverse background. Where does your interest in jazz come from?

BK: I was trained as a classical clarinetist for ten years before I pickup up a sax. While I was growing up, my father was playing with the pick-up bands of Gene Kruppa and Tommy Dorsey when they would come through Chicago and the Mid-West. He would play trumpet. I would always be hearing Big Band and Dixieland. He was really into that it. I went more towards the Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker... they were my first real influences. Then Ornette Coleman and the AACM(The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago. It is an organization from the 1960s and it was mostly black. Anthony Braxton and was one of the founding members. So was Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I became really interested in the avant-garde and free-jazz. In fact, that is when I met James Harvey (one of Burlington's finest jazz musicians) in Woodstock at the Creative Music Studio. It was a loose educational system out in the mountains. The instructors were people like Don Cherry, Jack DeJohnette and Anthony Braxton. So I always had a jazz interest, but at the same time, I had a lot of interest in rock and funk. I moved from Woodstock to New York City and joined the band called the Waitresses. Then moved onto the Psychedelic Furs for seven years. Billy Idol for a while. I did Rebel Yell and the tour.

BK: How have the years with the Waitresses, Furs and Billy Idol carried over to Liquid Soul?

MW: I learned a lot about touring and over spending. We finance this band through are gigs. We do not getting any tour support from our label. We are very self contained. I saw the overspending of money that went on. I learned how to budget then. I see bands that just get signed, they get a tour bus, and they stay in huge hotels. They all take this money and they spend it. Then they don't sell any records and then what? Then they owe money. Liquid Soul is now making a profit from its first album.

BK: That is probably another quality that you bring as a bandleader - having the experience of the road.

MW: I have toured for God knows how many years. I also have a lot of other bands and side projects - NRG Ensemble, Slam.

BK: Can you tell me about the NRG Ensemble?

MW: It was started by Hal Russell who passed away in the 1990. It is structured and free. There are heads written but there are springboards into the free. It is very powerful. There is a lot of dueling between the horns. When Hal died, I continued on with the band. It is very in your face, punk jazz. We have fun doing it. It is not snobby. I hate snobby jazz. I also hate re-creation of jazz instead of creation. Instead of trying to put you’re won voice. I am really tired of the educational system of Berklee where it is 'learn this Charlie Parker lick in 12 keys, then learn this Michael Brecker solo. Then when you build your solo, take this lick and put it on top of this lick'. I can't think of too many players that have their own voice. Who is stepping up and doing it? I am not saying that Liquid Soul is tearing down any barriers and we are definitely not. We are just having fun and we are not really thinking about. We are creating in that context. I think we have developed our own style within that Acid Jazz genre. The Groove Collective established the East Coast sound. You have the Brand New Heavies and Incognito doing the English sound. The Greyboy Allstars are doing the West Coast thing. We took up the Mid-West sound.

BK: What is the influence of the Chicago Blues on your sound?

MW: I think the rawness of the Liquid Soul has Chicago Blues in it. We are real in your face, powerful band.

BK: What kind of audiences do you attract?

MW: A total mix. We get from age 16 to the 50s. Some people come to hear the jazz - only the horn players blowing solos. Some people come to dance. Some people are there for the rap/hip-hop element. Now we get a lot of Rent fans because of Simone. Simone quite Rent to play with us. It is all multiracial. Its great.

BK: What kind of cover tunes do you play?

MW: We do a bunch of jazz standards but we do different kinds of beats behind them. On the first CD, we did Coltrane's "Equinox, Davis' Freddie the Freeloader, and Shorter's Footprints. On the new CD, we moved ahead a bit and did an Ornette Coleman tune, Rambling. We did "Salt Peanuts."

BK: How about non-jazz tunes?

MW: None, but we have been talking about it.

BK: You never bust out a "I Know What Boys Like" (an early Waitresses hit)?

MW: No, no, no. I don't think it will ever happen.

BK: What are the best and worst things about being on the road?

MW: The best thing is being able to meet different people around the country and being rewarded by having great responses from people all around. They vibe on the music. When the crowds get it, it is really rewarding to be appreciated like that. It is also good to see different places although we do not get to spend too much time in those places. The minuses are the traveling expenses. They are also not being able to spend some time in a city for more than a night. It would be nice to enjoy the culture of the city.

BK: Does having a 10 piece band have a detrimental effect on finances?

MW: I have developed a pretty good system where everybody is pretty happy. Pay wise, it is working out. We have developed some really big followings in certain areas where we can generate a lot of money that can finance the shows where we come into a market for the first time - like Vermont. It is like a business. You have long term and short term goals. It is like any corporation or business. That is how I look at it. Everybody is looking towards the long term goals. We have already passed some short term goals and achieved them. Our sites are pretty big. When you get any group of people together who have to spend a lot of time together, it can be pretty difficult with different personalities. When you get 2 or 3 people in a room, there is going to be conflict. Sometimes conflict is healthy. The tension drives the music somewhere else. The core of the band has been together for five years....we have really learned to liver and work together as a band.

BK: What do you think of the relationship between Jazz and Hip-Hop?

MW: It is such a natural thing to put a swing feeling on top of a hip-hop beat. It fuses itself together beautifully....as far as the rhythm goes. To put a walking bass line underneath a hip-hop drum line works.

BK: You have played some big time gigs. Tell us a little about playing the Presidential Inaugural Parade?

MW: We played out on Pennsylvania Avenue, then we played for the arrival of the Presidential Motorcade and then we played the MTV Youth Ball.

BK: Were there any Senators grooving to you?

MW: Yeah, kind of. Gore came up and yelled "Liquid Soul Rules". I wish we had that on tape.

BK: How about the Newport Jazz Festival?

MW: We were the first acid jazz band to play at Newport. They did because they wanted to get a younger audience. They took a chance and it sold out. This year they are supposed to do with the Greyboy Allstars.

BK: How about Dennis Rodman's party?

MW: That was a blast. Rodman used to come to our Sunday night shows all the time. I was in Europe with the NRG Ensemble and when I came back, my wife told me to call Rodman and play for his birthday party. I said ' Cool. When is it?' She said, 'tonight'. Within fours hours, I got in touch with everybody in the band and we set up. That was the first years with the Bulls, so it was his first big party. We had Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) on stage with us singing Happy Birthday. John Popper (Blues Traveler) sat in for four songs.

BK: How has your first album differed from the second album?

MW: I think its shows a progression of the band. It is still like the first album but it is better. It shows a lot of maturity. It still has a lot of edge. The next one is going to do the same.

BK: Besides the Bulls, what are some of Chicago's other finest exports?

MW: Pizza. The Chicago Hot Dog. Chicago Blues. The AACM Jazz Sound. There have always been a lot of influences coming out of Chicago. There has been a lot of innovation.


For more information on Liquid Soul, go here.

To see pictures of Liquid Soul at the 2000 New Orleans Jazz Festival, go here.