Listen: A Dreamer's Christmas

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Article Reviews
A Dreamer's Christmas
By John Zorn (Tzadik, 2011)

If Christmas has something to do with wonder and the joy of the unexpected then news of John Zorn making a Christmas album should stir inordinate Christmas spirit. After all, what could be more unexpected than an avant-garde jazz musician known for discordant noise foraying into that most conventional of musical genres, the Christmas album? Would this be an exercise in post-modern irony, a defacing of a popular tradition? Might there be a sentimental tinge of nostalgia lurking behind Zorn’s cutting edge experimentation?

A Dreamer’s Christmas is beyond such easy classifications. However, before anything else is said, one thing should be made clear: A Dreamer’s Christmas is a beautiful album. Those looking for roaring distorted guitars and Zorn’s shrieking saxophone amidst lightning fast drumbeats must look elsewhere. With A Dreamer’s Christmas Zorn opts for beauty rather than noise, harmony rather than discord. From the sensuous vibes that ring out the first notes of “Winter Wonderland” accompanied by full-bodied electric guitar with resounding reverb to the solemn piano and soft wistful brushes gliding across the snare drum in, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the band allows the poetic allure of the songs to shine through.

Yet, lest John Zorn fans think that their avant-garde edge be lost, the band and Zorn’s arrangements keep these perennial tunes from becoming ossified. Songs like, “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” dash with hyperactive, off-time jazz organ and slightly sporadic, sometimes goofy percussion bring a playful liveliness to these tunes so frequently rendered banal with tired and unimaginative renditions. Zorn’s two original compositions “Santa’s Workshop” and “Magical Sleigh Ride” undulate with cascading vibes, busy keyboards, and distorted guitars.     

Although John Zorn confines his contributions to composing, producing, and arranging, the band assembled here abounds with technical prowess and unabashed creativity. Frequent Zorn collaborator Marc Ribot’s stunning guitar playing shifts from refined to rambunctious at will. Kenny Wollesen’s vibes, chimes, and glockenspiel also stand out like gentle snowflakes in the moonlight. Most important in all of this is that the band actually sounds like they’re having fun. They sound like they are in the Christmas spirit. Christmas is a time of joy and celebration so who would want to listen to boring Christmas music?