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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, even for John Zorn

December 19, 2011

The idea of John Zorn making a Christmas album sounds like the stuff of Terry Zwigoff satire.

Throughout his career, he’s made difficult, challenging music that rips from bebop, Ornette Coleman, Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western soundtracks, old school funk, hard core punk, surf, klezmer, death metal, Japanese noise music….

For his early projects like Spillane or Naked City (his noir splatter-punk jazz supergroup was one of the greatest ensembles ever), Zorn would try more ideas in the space of a few bars that most musicians or composers try in a lifetime.

While I own a dozen or so of his finest albums, I admit I’ve lost track of him in recent years. When he started his Tzadik label in 1995, he began releasing his own records or those of his collaborators at a pace that made Frank Zappa seem like a recluse. I gave up trying to keep up with the guy. (I did a recent count, which came to roughly 150 titles just under his own name.)

A couple of weeks ago, I checked out NPR’s First Listen webpage and was surprised that Zorn had released a CD of holiday standards and originals, A Dreamer’s Christmas. No, it isn’t some kind of Bad Santa take on Christmas or deconstructionist exercise. It’s all very sincere, and apparently it’s been a pet project of his for years.

I gave the streaming audio version a listen (NPR doesn’t keep the links up forever, but it was still up the last I looked.)

The results are decidedly mellow, which seems appropriate for Christmas but somehow wrong in the Zorn universe.

For this project, he’s assembled one of his bands, The Dreamers, which includes twang guitar king Marc Ribot, keyboardist Jamie Saft, Kenny Wolleson on vibes and percussion, the inimitable Joey Baron on drums, Trevor Dunn on bass, Cyro Baptista on percussion and former Faith No More/Mr. Bungle crooner (and human beatbox) Mike Patton as guest vocalist. This band is like a kinder, more ethereal version of Naked City.

There’s a laidback feel to much of the music, which includes favourites like “Winter Wonderland” or “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas.” Vince Guaraldi’s cool jazz is also an influence here, so it’s no shock that his “Christmas Time is Here” (familiar to Charlie Brown fans everywhere) makes an appearance.

The band does get to stretch out a little further into the album, especially on tunes like Zorn’s own “Magical Sleigh Ride,” but for the most part, this is music suited for sitting back in an ugly sweater to sip some mulled wine. It’s hardly ground-breaking (or glass-breaking, as was the case with Zorn’s Kristallnacht), but if you need something to listen to this holiday season to tune out the embarrassing family stories or airings of grievances, A Dreamer’s Christmas, might do the trick.

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From → Recordings

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