John Zorn “A Dreamers Christmas” [Tzadik 2011] / Patsy Biscoe “Patsy’s Christmas Album” [EMS 1983]
What an extraordinary musical character is John Zorn. Although he started recording relatively late at age 27 (in 1980), since then he has amassed over one hundred recordings under his own name. But wait, there’s more. He has appeared on, composed for, produced or otherwise stuck his thumb into another hundred (Allmusic). That’s an exceptional work rate by any standards and there are plums aplenty.
I met Lou in Munich, not New York. It was 1992, and we were both playing in John Zorn’s Kristallnacht festival commemorating the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, which marked the beginning of the Holocaust. I remember looking at the rattled expressions on the customs officials’ faces as a constant stream of Zorn’s musicians came through customs all wearing bright red RHYTHM AND JEWS! T-shirts.
It was a very quiet year in 2011; only four albums released under Zorn’s name. This lamentable torpor, by the way, was remedied the next year with a more productive 10 records. Plus other projects, of course.
Back to 2011. Into that under-occupied space was born the idea of an album of Christmas music . Why not? For a New Yorker of Jewish heritage to produce a Christmas album should not, I guess, be a major leap. Well, not for Mr Zorn, anyway.
Also not surprising is that it is good. So good, in fact, that you forget that it is a Christmas LP. Well, you might if it wasn’t infused with the aural richness of brandy-bathed pudding, the heady aromas of high class playing and treasures to discover just like sixpences only better because they don’t shatter your teeth.
And it looks so beautiful. A platter as white as newly fallen snow, edged in pine-frond green and scattered with gorgeous little naive drawings (artwork and design are by ‘Chippy’). It’s a slab of magic nougat and not at all easy to restrain yourself from taking a bite.
The songs have been chosen with thoughtfulness and care; just what you want when receiving a gift. It’s jazz, but not distancing. Accustomed tunes like ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ will help those not so jazz orientated navigate the musical landscape.
A bonus present is that each side has a Zorn original, new pieces that refresh the ears with novel melodies while managing to evoke the spirit of yuletide magic. ‘Santa’s Workshop’ has a tinge of Latin and a spray of surf guitar from Marc Ribot and you don’t often read that in a festive season album review. ‘Magical Sleigh Ride’ begins a bit mysteriously and unfolds with unusual textures and rhythmic colourings. It also has Jamie Saft playing his Fender Rhodes so that’s Vinyl Connection instantly entranced.
Christmas magic is in these grooves and although I have only begun appreciating the whole Christmas malarkey since the boy came along, John Zorn’s Dreamers Christmas has made a believer out of me. Rarely has the label on a package been so accurate:
Patsy Biscoe was a popular Australian children’s entertainer in the 70s and 80s. One of her big sellers was 59 Favourite Nursery Rhymes, which eventually ran to three volumes. Learn more about Patsy here.