Want a Christmas album by a New York composer of Jewish heritage that is totally not a turkey? Step this way.
John Zorn started recording in 1980 at age 27. Later than Mozart, certainly, yet in the years following he has amassed over one hundred recordings under his own name. And there’s more. He has appeared on, composed for, produced or otherwise stuck his thumb into another hundred. That’s an exceptional work rate by any standards and there are plums aplenty.
So it is not surprising that the name Zorn crops up quite often, especially in avant-grade circles. One name-check appeared in Laurie Anderson’s November 2013 (Rolling Stone) farewell to partner Lou Reed.
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.
The year 2011 was a very quiet one for John Zorn: only four albums released under his own 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-utilised space was born the idea of an album of Christmas music . Why not? For a Jewish New Yorker to produce a Christmas album should not, I guess, be a major leap. Well, not for Mr Zorn, anyway.
Also unsurprising is how good it is. 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 silver 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 that pleads ‘nibble me’.
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, an instrument beloved by Vinyl Connection.
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 A Dreamers Christmas (Tzadik 2011) has made a believer out of me. Rarely has the label on a package been so accurate:
A version of this article first appeared in December 2013 for Vinyl Connection’s first Christmas. I thought it worth re-jigging.
Meanwhile, while we’re talking archives, a longish Christmas story appeared here.
And a new seasonal memoir/music piece is on the way. Ho HO!