Whenever I see an album from Dave Soldier in my review pile, I know that I have to put on my thinking cap or open my mind or just generally be prepared for anything. I’ve reviewed quite a number of his releases over the last few years, and he’s the type of instrumentalist who’s always analyzing sound for sound’s sake. He is a man of stunning ideas and curiosity, even when his explorations are too abstract for about 99% of the population. I’ve just received his latest, Zajal, and before I placed it in the CD player I had a fleeting moment of trepidation. What was this going to be? Hold onto your armrests–here it comes.
Zajal turned out to be a complete surprise in so many ways. I’m not going to say it’s Dave Soldier’s most accessible album, because he’s a very prolific artist and I’ve only sampled a small part of his catalog. But Zajal is accessible, musical and yet still exotic. Dave Soldier has decided to unearth the very origins of popular song by going back 1000 years to Andalusia in Southern Spain. If you know your world history, you might recognize this time and place as a great intersection of cultures–mostly notably between Muslims, Jews and Christians. The zajal was a type of sung or recited poetry, set to music, that originated in Lebanon.
This was an inventive time, influencing countless future generations, but Soldier focuses on the zajal and the muwashasha. These two song forms introduced the idea of the verse and the chorus, communicated through wandering troubadours who only needed a voice and an oud. Dave Soldier gathers numerous performers in Zajal to make his case including Maurice Chedid, described as “a celebrated singer and oudist from Lebanon who drives a livery cab in New York.”
What’s remarkable about Zajal is that doesn’t try to recreate the sounds from 1000 years ago, like Todd Garfinkle did with his stunning recording of Calamus’ The Splendour of Al-Andalus. He uses plenty of modern instrumentation–trombones, violins, clarinets and more–along with the complex percussion and vocal arrangements. Zajal is a simply beautiful record, lush and detailed, and it’s the type of history lesson that’s so rewarding you’ll remember it for a very long time.