It is not often I feel totally unprepared and unable to write a review of an album, and it only happens when I am sent something which is so far outside my own musical terms of reference that I find I am floundering somewhat, close to drowning. I do recall it happening when I reviewed Dennis Rea’s incredible ‘Views From Chicheng Precipice’ some years back, as there he was bringing traditional Chinese music into a modern format (I highly recommend both that album and his book ‘Live at the Forbidden City’). In this instance composer and instrumentalist Dave Soldier explores the beginning of popular song and locates it 1000 years ago at the intersection of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures in southern Spain. Zajal, along with muwashaha, were the lyrics of medieval Andalusia. While many are still sung today (notably in Lebanon), their offspring are everywhere. On a trip to Spain in 2004, Soldier read about the Andalusian caliphate, when the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities not only coexisted, but co-created much of the world we inhabit today.

‘Zajal’ features Maurice Chedid, a celebrated singer and oudist from Lebanon; Triana Bautista and Ismael Fernandez, scions of famous Gypsy flamenco families; flamenco and Latin music singers David Castellano and Barbara Martinez; and Israeli-Moroccan-Persian vocalist Ana Nimouz. Players include composer Dave Soldier on guitar and keyboards: classical and klezmer violinist Rebecca Cherry; Alan Kushan, the foremost virtuoso of the Iranian sentur: trombonist Chris Washburne (Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colon): klezmer trombonist Dan Blacksberg: jazz bassist Ratzo Harris (Mose Allison, Betty Carter): timbalero Robby Ameen (Eddie Palmieri, Dizzy Gillespie): Greek clarinetest Lefteris Bournias: flamenco dancer and percussionist Jose Moreno: and palmas (handclaps) by the dancers Nelida (Neli) Tirado and Sonia Olla (Madonna and Ricky Martin). Dave learned flamenco guitar from Pedro Cortes, the foremost American exponent of Gypsy flamenco, who produced the record. The lyrics are by the major Arabic and Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, plus one by their Persian contemporary Rumi in Farsi; a lyric by Dave Soldier in English that uses the sevillianas, a flamenco form; and a modern muwashaha from the great Lebanese singer Fairouz. The music uses contemporary Andalusian forms (buleria, fandango, petenera, rumba, tango) as translated through Soldier’s vision of the contemporary cultures of New York City.

Some of the numbers are more jazz-based such as “Without Myself”, and much easier on Western ears, but the vocal styles there are still far more Arabian than expected (and just because the album title is in English don’t let that fool you as it is in Farsi). There are details of where the lyrics came from within the CD, and what language they are being performed in, and the result is something which for my ears is something I know I would never normally listen to but I know my horizons have been broadened by being given the opportunity. One for those who wish to do the same.

Rating: 8/10


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