The Dreamers, by John Zorn and his septet, is for all practical purposes a sequel of sorts to 2001's The Gift, which was -- and perhaps remains -- Zorn's most "accessible" record. That said, there some key differences in the approach to this new set. Most of the band from the former record are back: guitarist Marc Ribot is here, as are keyboardist Jamie Saft, drummer Joey Baron, bassist Trevor Dunn (who was one of three bassists on The Gift), and percussionist Cyro Baptista. Zorn does play some alto saxophone as well, but his performance is not prevalent as an instrumentalist. Dave Douglas' trumpet is absent, and has been replaced by the vibes work of Kenny Wollesen. The music? It's funnier in a way, trickier and more exotic without being "exotica" the way The Gift was. In fact, one can hear the actual influences on Zorn's musical consciousness, literally pick them out track for track on The Dreamers. The devotion the composer has for popular styles is well documented -- whether from film noir and exploitation movie soundtracks, surf music, incidental commercial music, library records, etc. Things are fairly straightforward here until "Toys," track five of this 11-cut, nearly 53-minute album. "Mow Mow," which may be a play on the term "Mau Mau," is a nearly straight-ahead surf ballad that comes more from the Ventures than from Dick Dale. It's not blasted with reverb and its tempo is easy and breezy, offering a twilight look at the world. The beautiful organ work by Saft and the timing of Wollesen's vibes are uncanny, as they bracket Ribot's understated and elegant guitar work. The piece croons and drifts its way though several surf motifs before whispering to a close. "Uluwati" threatens to become another surf number, but instead it veers left and becomes a kind of incidental television theme number. One can picture a blend of The Simpsons and The Jetsons here, with the interplay between the guitars and vibes and the reverbed hand percussion skittering in the backdrop. This is the way Piero Umiliani would sound with Duane Eddy.
As unlikely as it may seem, television theme music rears its head in the piece immediately following this one, too. "A Ride on Cottonfair" evokes no one if not Vince Guaraldi and his Peanuts themes. It swings and is full of striking, even knottily percussive right-hand work by Saft, but it's woven so tightly into the melody that the improvisation that does take place -- pushed forward by the incredible brushwork of Baron and Dunn's upright bass solo -- feels like the interlude in an episodic cartoon. Wonderful stuff. "Anulikwutsayl," the fourth cut, is a nine-minute workout for guitar, organ, and percussion that goes right to the heart of Santana during his Caravanserai/Welcome period. Ribot sounds nothing like him, using his edgy Fender as opposed to the Les Paul, but the impression is immediate. But it's more than this, too, because it sounds like Santana and Gregg Rolie's organ playing the soundtrack to an Italian spaghetti Western by Bruno Nicolai, Piero Piccioni, Stelvio Cipriani, or the master himself, Ennio Morricone, with odd bits of sound effects slipped into the mix at strategic places -- including the sounds of screaming, so perhaps there's a bit of Giorgio Gaslini or Claudio Simonetti here as well. No matter -- it's killer, and you get the idea. Things get a bit stranger on the brief "Toys," where surf, the Tijuana Brass, flamenco, fusion, and soundtrack music from noir-ish sources meet teensploitation beach-blanket bongout flicks and insane Japanese hyper-animated cartoons. It's brief but big and changes the feel and direction of the record. Zorn is also is up-front with Ribot and Saft on this one, and Wollesen paints the backdrop with vibes about a quarter step behind the beat. Needless to say, in one of the two breaks, Zorn lets loose a torrent of his improvisational skronk, but picks up the tune seamlessly when it comes back around, letting his vibist take it out on the free side.
Things get a bit meditative on the aptly named "Of Wonder and Uncertainty," but get back to humor and provocative knotty fun on the cinematic space rocker "Mystic Circles." "Exodus" is a fantastic vehicle for Ribot and for Saft on the B-3. This is a killer jazzed-up Raybeats kind of number -- if Robert Quine had been with the Raybeats on a spy flick set. The vibes add so much atmosphere that they make the jobs of Baptista and Baron much simpler. They carry a lot of weight in the entire mix without drawing a lot of attention to themselves. The Santana thematics return on the album's final cut, "Raksasa," but even as Ribot references his phrasing, there are other things crawling into this already tremendously but delightfully full envelope -- dense, nocturnal sonics and ambiences, sound effects, bigger vibes, the organ breathing in and out like some ritual demon, and the slippery meld of percussion swirling about the entire mix. This set is not only a fitting complement to The Gift, which was fantastic in its own right, but is an actual next-step recording: it's focused, tight, humorous, and a gas to listen to from beginning to end. And there's one more part of this recording that needs to be mentioned: the sleeve design by Tzadik's Chippy -- which extends from the covers to the inside of the gatefold's inner sleeves -- is every bit as cool, unusual, funny, and mysterious as it was on The Gift, and the limited-edition sticker set is a happening touch as well. (That Chippy has never even been nominated for a Grammy for his always brilliant design work speaks directly to the inherent aesthetic bankruptcy on the part of NARAS.)