Composer John Zorn has been so busy with various projects lately that it’s easy to forget that his Dreamers ensemble hasn’t been active lately. They were certainly off to a stupendous start with their 2008 eponymous album. O’o sprung up the following year and their momentum, at least temporarily, seemed set. Their following release was part of Zorn’s Masada Book Two series, Book of Angels, playing music that, while composed by Zorn, was not composed with that ensemble in mind. Then in 2011 they dropped a Christmas album, which I initially thought was a gag. Nope, it turns out that Jewish musician and composer John Zorn is highly serious about Christmas music and wanted to make his own recording of “Winter Wonderland” along with a handful of Yuletide originals.
After that, Dreamers went silent. All of the band’s members, guitarist Marc Ribot, keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Trevor Dunn, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, percussionist Cyro Baptista, and drummer Joey Barron, had plenty of other projects to keep them busy as Zorn threw himself many other artistic endeavors. Instead of blending surf with Latin rhythms and psychedelia for this unique sounding sextet, John Zorn focused his soft side back to mystical territory with the Gnostic Trio. After a four year pause, the Dreamers band is back together for Pellucidar: A Dreamers Fantabula. All of the usual Dreamers elements are in place. If you liked the albums Dreamers and O’o, then you will be satisfied with Pellucidar. You may not be blown away, but having another Dreamers release for our collective enjoyment is still unmistakably a good thing.
Pellucidar: A Dreamers Fantabula derives inspiration from literature, especially from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Two song titles are named after fictional places created by the author, “Pellucidar” and “Jewels of Opar”. Zorn also spritzes you with “A Perfume from Cleopolis”, takes you on a dive to “Atlantic”, and levitates you for a “Magic Carpet Ride” and a “Flight from Salem”. There’s even a “Gormenghast”! A trip to the library this is not, but you can’t possibly expect an intention like that to be what’s at stake here. This is John Zorn fastening his compositional knacks to literary places as his imagination sees fit. How they strike the listener isn’t part of the equation. Zorn admitted in the documentary A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky that he does not think about his audience when composing music.
When I refer to Zorn’s compositional knacks, I’m referring to his melodic and rhythmic tendencies. He’s still fond of that steady, soft syncopation that punctuates so much of his work. His melodies continue to be active and use a wide range, but they never fail to dig their hooks in you. A tonal Zorn melody is something that will linger with you long after you’ve put one of his albums away. Jamie Saft, a musician who will try his hand at anything no matter how ugly or avant-garde it may be, plays the electric piano will all the might of Herbie Hancock providing keys for Miles Davis circa 1968. Marc Ribot’s guitar provides the surf element to the Dreamers’s sound. And although he may be the leader of the ever-aggressive Ceramic Dog, his playing is tightly wrapped to the rest of the ensemble’s. Opener “Magic Carpet Ride” seems built to gently nudge the album into flight with Ribot producing ghostly tones over the groove, a trick he reprises on “Queen of Ilium” and “Flight from Salem”. “Gormenghast” is his chance to get down and dirty, but he restrains himself for the sake of the Dreamers. Baron, who has certainly gone a more funky and boppy route with his own releases, teams up with Wollesen and Baptista to give an appropriately loungey vibe to Pellucidar.
The peculiar thing about Dreamers is that despite the stunning musical acumen of all involved, they aren’t really what one would call a “musician’s band”. Their performances are impressive, but in a subtle way. There are no flights of fancy, just an atmosphere to drape over your senses. When a cozy blanket is covering you, you don’t think about the individual fibers. And when you listen to a Dreamers album, you don’t think about Trevor Dunn’s time in Mr. Bungle. You think about how sweet life is and how having another Dreamers album is now a part of that sweet life.