For some reason when I have tried listening to John Zorn, I've run into his more (for me) avant-garde recordings, which have been interesting and energetic, but not work I could listen to more than a couple of times at a sitting. But just in time for what is likely to be a crappy holiday is A Dreamer's Christmas, a real treasure that has me feeling good each time I listen to it.
There are a couple Zorn originals here, and they are really fine, but mostly we have some fascinating, lively, and accessible interpretations of Christmas favorites, from the opening keyboard and vibe driven "Winter Wonderland" to the closing "The Christmas Song" (with Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton), this is an album that has me smiling throughout. And to be honest, I can only say that about a dozen of the hundreds of Christmas albums I've heard in my life.
There are some terrific improvisations on A Dreamer's Christmas, which is good because most "jazz" Christmas recordings are dull, I'm sorry to say. But what makes the project a bit unique may be the instrumentation. Marc Ribot is excellent on guitar, and Kenny Wolleson's vibe playing is delicious. The rest of the band is good as well, but these two stand out for me. Some of the arrangements are also really fun, quirky at times without getting nuts. "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" gets a treatment that made me actually like the song again.
Perhaps the best tune on the CD is the Vince Guaraldi favorite, "Christmas Time Is Here." As NPR's Tom Cole wrote, "It perfectly captures no only Charlie Brown's holiday angst, but also the mixed feelings a lot of us have around this time of year." But then the album takes a more upbeat turn with "Santa's Workshop," a tune that seems to reflect the frentic running around of the season. It goes well with the sped up, wonderfully wild parts of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."
The songs here do focus on the more secular side of Christmas, but I don't think that should put off more spiritually minded listeners. These are secular not in the sense of crass commercialism. In fact, I get a sense that parts of A Dreamer's Christmas pokes a bit of fun at that element of the season. But the album seems to highlight the wonder and dreaminess of Christmas, something most of us, if we could watch with the eyes of a child, can easily understand.