3. Christmas Time Is Here
4. Santa's Workshop
5. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
7. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
8. Magical Sleigh Ride
9. The Christmas Song
AMAZON (Vinyl LP)
AMAZON (Vinyl 7")
ARTIST SITE (TZADIK)
The Lounge Music revival that brought us multiple volumes of “Christmas Cocktails” wasn’t all that long ago and much of Zorn’s Christmas effort would fit nicely in such a mix. Minus the bird calls and jungle sounds, “A Dreamers Christmas” is, at times, borderline Exotica. Every year, a Michael Buble (or two or three) will attempt to recreate the classic Christmas vocal albums of years past—some, like Buble or Mandy Barnett, successfully and some not so much—but rarely does any modern artist attempt to create an instrumental album to rival the great Lounge and Exotica records of that era. For the attempt alone, Zorn deserves tremendous praise. That he succeeded so spectacularly is a true achievement.
“A Dreamers Christmas” begins innocently enough with the unmistakable opening of “Winter Wonderland” being pounded out on the vibes by Kenny Wollesen. Jamie Saft’s funky organ momentarily mixed deep. And then the secret ingredient, the Hawaiian guitar of Mark Ribot. And we are off on a trip to the mythical land where snowflakes fall softly on palm trees and white sandy beaches. Each of the players trades off solos, with Wollesen tossing in some extra chimes just because. The whole mix has an easy island sway that’s winning, though not yet irresistible. But Zorn definitely has your attention.
Ah, but then comes Zorn’s take on “Snowfall”. And I can’t call “Snowfall” anything but Exotica. Martin Denny, the man credited with inventing the genre, would be positively green with envy. Here, the central players are Saft’s dreamy piano and Ribot’s surf guitar. But the layering of sounds is unbelievable. You could listen to this track 20 times and hear something new each time. There are sounds here that I could never identify in a hundred years, most probably being created by percussionist Cyro Baptista. All blended together, “Snowfall” alone makes this album essential listening. Put it on for company or sit in a dark room and listen to it by yourself. It is the height of Christmas music perfection either way. Zorn is now in control.
Did I say “minus the bird calls and jungle sounds” before? Well, just to see if we’re paying attention, Zorn tosses in some of those to lead us into his vision of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” (the sounds are actually percussion effects, not actual jungle sounds, but they simulate the latter very convincingly). Again, the mixing is just incredible. But, here, we begin to realize, if we had not already done so, that these players are skilled jazzmen. Trevor Dunn does some sweet bass playing on this one and turns in a sparkling solo. This gentle lullaby washes away all the day’s worries and, by the time it finishes, we are completely under Zorn’s spell.
Zorn lifts the tempo a bit for the first of his two originals. “Santa’s Workshop” is propelled largely by Wolleson’s vibe play and Ribot’s almost surreal guitar solos, but the piece wouldn’t be what it is without Baptista’s bongos. “Santa’s Workshop” has the hustle bustle of the Christmas rush, but remains completely stress free and still in that Exotica mold.
Zorn produced this record as the old vinyl LPs would have been (and it is available on LP), and there is definitely a different personality between the first and second half. Having only the CD version, I suspect “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas” is the last song on Side A, but it is a transitional song in any case. It’s presented here in a way that straddles both the worlds of Exotica and of mainstream Jazz. Jamie Saft turns in one of his best performances of the album on this track.
While “Let It Snow” starts out with a little gentle bass and chime byplay, things get interesting when Ribot and Saft join in. At first, they simply play the melody straight but, gradually, all heck breaks loose—with Ribot providing a restrained but nonetheless rocking solo and Saft providing an audio counterpart on the keyboards, playing the thing like one might expect from Keyboard Cat hopped up on catnip. All told, I’d put this one in the “experimental jazz” category—much more what one usually expects from Zorn. It's still dreamy, but your surrealistic pillow has started to melt. And still it fits perfectly with the rest of the set.
Following a borderline bizarre opening, Zorn’s cats swing out on a pure jazz outing for “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. Their version recalls some of the best jazz takes on the song—Bill Evans, Paul Bley with Mingus, you name it. Did I say Jamie Saft turned in his best performance on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”? Clearly I was mistaken. And, here, we finally get to hear drummer Joey Baron cut loose.
The second Zorn original, “Magical Sleigh Ride” is something else entirely. Here, Zorn takes us all into the world of Progressive Fusion Jazz, complete with distorted guitars and screaming organs. Yet, even here, the overall effect remains a relaxing trip…trip being perhaps the most operative word.
The closing number is the only vocal piece offered, as Mike Patton (lead singer of rock's Faith No More) gently croons Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song". Conceptually, I get it. It was only a dream and the dream is over. Yada yada. And I suspect plenty of people will love the track. But it didn't work for me. Patton has a nice voice and all, but I'm beginning to think Scott Weiland has ruined rock star crooning for everyone. In any case, it doesn't detract from the brilliance of the album as a whole. Not one bit.
With "A Dreamers Christmas", John Zorn has created an absolutely dazzling concept album that works on multiple levels. It has the seasonal freshness of new winter snow, the familiar comfort of your favorite blanket, the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa (with marshmallows), and the luminous romance of a fire in the fireplace. It's retro cool and modern chic. It should be as well received by fans of serious Jazz as by fans of kitschy Lounge. "A Dreamers Christmas" works equally well as a background soundtrack for your December evenings and as foreground music for serious deep listening. I can easily see this one standing the test of time and taking its place among the classics of the season. Now if we can just get John Zorn to turn a little of that genius towards creating the perfect Jazz Hanukkah album.