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Spirited Holiday

With A Dreamers Christmas, subversive jazz musician John Zorn makes a straightforward holiday album that’s radical in its own way

Jake Marmer
December 21, 2011
John Zorn playing in Antwerp, Belgium.(Bruno Bollaert/Flickr)
John Zorn playing in Antwerp, Belgium.(Bruno Bollaert/Flickr)

On the fifth night of Hanukkah this year, John Zorn—one of the most compelling contemporary composers and reed players, a 2006 MacArthur fellow, and the producer of the Tzadik record label—will be hosting a benefit festival for and at the Center for Jewish Arts and Literacy in Manhattan’s East Village, also known as the Sixth Street Synagogue. My excitement for the event peaked over the past weekend, when I first heard about Tzadik’s recent release of Zorn’s new album, A Dreamers Christmas.

Fans of Zorn’s work, which includes an exploration of new Jewish music known as the “Radical Jewish Culture,” must have at least been scratching their heads at the news. A Dreamers Christmas is now airing on NPR, not merely its songs but also a live interview, during which Zorn spins a few tracks from the album and other holiday songs that have inspired him over the years. The composer has a reputation for shunning the press—at times, abrasively. But in this segment with NPR’s David Garland, he’s warm, perfectly charming, and really accessible—quite like the album itself.

Indeed, the album’s accessibility is perhaps more surprising than the fact of its existence. As Zorn puts it in the interview, this is one of his most user-friendly projects ever. “My message is joy to the world,” he says. “This is a record to play while you’re trimming the tree.” A subversive thinker and composer, Zorn has often gravitated toward subversive sounds—of screeching free jazz, punk, hardcore, and noise. This project is nothing like that: Playing at the supermarket before and after other traditional carols, it might not raise any flags to an average shopper. A connoisseur, however, will discern the difference, since the date includes, among others, art-rock and avant-jazz giant Marc Ribot, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Jewish Radical Culture phenomenon, along with Kenny Wollesen on vibes and glockenspiel, and the Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, a frequent Zorn collaborator. Everyone in the band is a tremendously accomplished musician who at some point or another gravitated toward aggressive, thrashing music—of which, on this project, there’s hardly a trace.

So, what’s going on here?

Before I even listened to the tracks and the interview, Lenny Bruce’s classic routine came to mind: “Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai Brith is goyish. Hadassah, Jewish. Marine corps—heavy goyim, dangerous.” And so then, Christmas may be goyish, but writing Christmas carols is very Jewish. Based on Zorn’s chat on NPR, however, this project appears a much deeper and more intriguing affair. In the interview, Zorn talks about growing up in a largely Jewish neighborhood but being the only Jewish family there to not observe Hanukkah and hoist a tree instead. Zorn’s grandparents had been down the route of assimilation, and they’d passed this attitude on to his parents, who understandably thought their son crazy when he began to not only rediscover his Jewish roots but also grow into the face of the New York Jewish avant-garde in the early 1990s.

Needless to say that Zorn is no Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae musician, nor Danny Zamir, the religious soprano sax player who got his start on Zorn’s Tzadik label. He did not “return” to institutionalized Judaism, or publicly commit himself to a prescribed praxis. Instead he forged a new identity, informed by the encounter with a number of things Judaism had to offer him—particularly, what he referred to as the “radical” side of it.

“Radical,” a good Latin word, means something pertaining to the roots, something originary. And our roots always grow—usually, in opposite directions to the way we grow. A few decades ago, Zorn engaged his mythic Jewish roots: mysticism, protest, social justice, and above all, ideas about Jewish otherness, which resonated with his own eccentric approach to art. Perhaps, then, with this Christmas album, the composer is addressing his actual roots: his family traditions, including the manner in which they observed the December holidays. Who is to say that this true bit of his family history is any less Jewish than someone else’s memories of celebrating Hanukkah? The content may be different, but both are actual, lived experiences of equal value.

Zorn’s experience speaks of a complex reality of the Jewish identity in this place and time. His Jewishness is informed by his family’s customs, and these customs aren’t merely a form of rebellion but a component as vital as a body part. The album contains no religious tunes but lots of classics: “Winter Wonderland,” for example, and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which, in the great jazz tradition of transforming simple pop tunes into complex explorations, roam far and wide—be it in Ribot’s spectacular guitar work or in Jamie Saft’s endlessly exciting piano solos. There are also two Zorn originals, “Santa’s Workshop” and “Magical Sleigh Ride,” which both feature rhythms and textures that will be familiar to a Zorn listener, and a mellow feel reminiscent of some of Miles Davis’ fusion albums as well. But there’s also an unmistakable hint of caroling, especially in Wollesen’s festive chimes and vibes and Baptista’s percussion work.

Whether or not these originals will become part of the American carol canon remains to be seen, because music as complex as Zorn’s is a highly personal, subjective experience. When I first listened to these songs, I found myself getting defensive, then tried hard to like it, then tried hard to dislike it, then got lost in the music because it was very good, and perpetually came back to a feeling of pleasure laced with dismay. And then I realized that I was really thinking about my own memory of a decorated tree in my parents’ home.

When Zorn says, discussing his Christmas music, that he misses “the tree,” I know what he means: When I pass by a street vendor in New York with rows of evergreens the smell immediately brings back a recollection: growing up in a Russian Jewish family in the still-Soviet Ukraine, where a tree was less of a novelty than it might have been for an American Jewish family in New York. In fact, I didn’t know of any Jewish families who didn’t celebrate the holiday for ethnic reasons. The holiday was for everyone. Celebrations, with gifts, were held on New Year’s. While over the past 16 or so years I made no secret of this in my Jewish circles—even at the time when I was committed to a largely Orthodox milieu—it felt like something of a dirty little secret. Very quickly, my memories of the holiday became marred with disdain, and over the years, when I’ve called my parents on New Year’s Eve, hearing their cheerful voices laced with festivities, I’ve had to squelch a certain disaffection. But listening to Zorn brought back a surge of positive memories: family-time, days spent cooking, gifts, and decorations. As a child, the only night I was allowed to stay up past midnight was also the first time I tasted champagne.

This is not to say that suddenly now I have any desire to run out and get a tree. I live a traditional Jewish life, and a Christmas tree no longer has a place in it. Frankly, I don’t even know if I’ll listen to this album again. The point, really, is that I have a whole lost world inside of me, and Zorn’s engagement with his lost world reminded me of that and brought that world back to me. Buried memories suddenly surfaced against the backdrop of my life’s trajectory. It feels like a catharsis, and only real art is able to engender that.

Zorn’s Christmas album is not a practical joke or a jest. Zorn is a serious composer, and he approached this album with the seriousness he brings to all of his music. As he says in the interview, when working with a specific style, his goal is to make it into “more what it is.” That is, he seeks to summon the style’s essence and spirit. In this case, that’s to avoid celebrating the consumerist hype or drunken stupors of the holiday season, in favor of the national, nearly secular festivity. As Bob Dorough sings on a record with Miles Davis—which Zorn brought for Garland’s listeners—“When you’re blue at Christmas time/ You see through all the waste/ All the sham, all the haste/ And plain old bad taste/ It’s a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy.” Zorn’s album takes its name from his band, the Dreamers, but maybe there’s also a bit of an actual dream in its concept: That of a holiday time for everyone.

To come back to Lenny Bruce: “Celebrate is a goyish word. Observe is a Jewish word.” Christmas most certainly will not be celebrated at the Sixth Street Synagogue this Saturday night. That’s why the event—which, in addition to Zorn’s own Aleph Trio features three other top-notch Jewish bands, two of which include the synagogue’s rabbi, illustrious sax player Greg Wall—is billed as “Nittel Nacht.” That’s how Jews named this day in the Old Country. The evening is not about celebration, but the act of observing—looking around and inside, riffing and transforming, revealing and questioning.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by the Blue Thread Music in 2013.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).