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Dave Soldier: Zajal
by George Graham
(Mulatta Records release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/29/2020)
For me, musical eclecticism can be not only fascinating and innovative, but fun when seemingly incompatible influences come together, sometimes with results that can be seriously innovative, and sometimes just wacky. This week we have a super pastiche of influences that combine a number of exotic sounds in what I think is a quite entertaining way. It’s by Dave Soldier, and the album is called Zajal.
Dave Soldier is a New York based musician who can definitely be described as a dilettante in the best way. He has composed and performed classical music, and leads the Soldier String Quartet. He has arranged and orchestrated music for artists like John Cale and the Nova TV series. He created albums of music with inner city elementary school students. He launched a group dedicated to “Delta punk” music with Southern African American style fife and drum music with punk influence. And he has recorded albums of music made by animals who were given a way to make sounds, including three by the Thai Elephant Orchestra, then made a recording of a human orchestra playing the sounds that the elephants played on their instruments. And he created music for Trio and Brain Waves.
So given Dave Soldier’s output, Zajal may not be so far out there. Soldier asserts that the beginning of popular music, as opposed to more formal or folk music, emerged in the southern region of Spain about a thousand years ago, when the area had a rich cross-cultural mixture of Arab influence from the Moorish conquest of Spain at the time with the Andalusian caliphate, along with Hebrew, and Christian culture. The region gave birth to the guitar, and the dance that would become flamenco, and even the beginning of cowboys and their traditions. There was also a rich output of poetry from the period.
Dave Soldier began this musical venture about 15 years ago, around 2005 under the name the Spinozas, doing a number of performances in New York venues. So now the material is brought together on the new album under the name Zajal. Soldier is heard on guitar and keyboards, saying that he studied flamenco style guitar for the project, and is joined by a diverse cast, including jazz musicians such as trombonist Chris Washburne, bassist Ratzo Harris, and percussionist Robbie Ameen, plus an outstanding oud player named Maurice Chedid, from Lebanon, who works as a livery cab driver in New York. There are several vocalists who take the spotlight, including David Castellano, and Ana Nimouz. The lyrics are in Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and English, most taken from poetry from the period from 900 to 1400 AD.
The musical accompaniment is as about as diverse as you would expect, but that synthesis of influences in Spain at the time was what led to what we think of today and flamenco, with the guitars and the Arab tonality. But there are other influences from hints of more contemporary elements to jazz to a dollop of Klezmer clarinet. While there are times when it can sound a little clunky, most of the album is fascinating and melodic enough that it’s not too exotic for the open-minded listener.
Opening is a typically eclectic track called The Spy, with flamenco-style guitar and jazzy trombonists, in a kind of a rumba beat. <<>>
Sounding a bit more exotic, with the prominent oud, is Water and Fire which otherwise shows the passionate-sounding side of flamenco. Triana Bautista is the vocalist singing the Arabic lyrics that date to the 1100s. <<>>
A piece called My Father is one of the more musically lyrical on the album. The vocalist is Ana Nimouz, while the accompaniment gets into jazzy piano style and harmonic approach. <<>>
Another piece showing jazz influence in the context of the ancient text is Without Myself by the Persian poet Rumi. An unexpected element is the presence of violins. <<>>
Probably the most wildly eclectic track on the album is one sung in English, with contemporary lyrics by Soldier, a song called The Stars of Country Music Greet the Spring, which features lyrics that are set in a honky-tonk in a musical setting combining flamenco and jazz with prominent trombones. <<>>
More upbeat and another interesting musical pastiche is a track called Don’t Bite Me Baby with the Hebrew lyrics dating from the Eleventh Century. <<>>
Also in Hebrew is a piece whose title translates as Battle. It’s more intimate with just the guitar and Ana Mimouz’ vocals. <<>>
The album closes with a piece whose 13th Century Arabic title translates as If. It shows a some tango influence to add to the mixture. This piece with its strings and “santur” hammered dulcimer can remind one the soundtrack of some movie set in exotic places. <<>>
Zajal, the new album by musical polyglot Dave Soldier, is a fascinating and wildly eclectic blend of sounds that are exotic to many Western ears, from flamenco to Arabic to Hebrew, with most of the lyrics taken from nearly about a thousand years ago from the cross cultural mix that was the Andalusian region of Spain. Soldier has assembled an appropriately diverse group of musicians to perform these musical conglomerations. The results makes for appealing and often downright fun listening. Though some of the sounds are quite removed from Western pop music, they are tempered by a good sense of melody and there is usually an undercurrent of more familiar influences like jazz and hints of pop. Some of the tracks are more appealing than others, and sometimes the influences get diverse enough not to come together that well, but overall, it’s very much an artistic success.
Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The mix is well done, but clarity could have been a little better in places. The dynamic range, how well the recording reproduces the loud and soft of the music is no better than mediocre.
Most people like to listen to music in a familiar style, something that is being reinforced these days by recommendation algorithms on streaming services. But if you are looking for creative music off the beaten path, Dave Soldier’s Zajal is pretty much the definition of that.
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