Dave Soldier‘s newest release bracingly fuses originality and tradition. Zajal is a “world music” album that sounds like a lovingly compiled scrapbook of music from the Middle East and Andalusia. But it’s deceptive: With one exception, all the music is by the ever-imaginative Soldier.
For this project the keyboardist and guitarist has set thousand-year-old poems in Hebrew, Arabic and the other languages of Andalusia (English translations are online) to bubbling stews of traditional instrumentation with strains of jazz and swatches of the Western avant-garde. Singer Ana Nimouz lends her starry, sweetly piercing vocals to many of the tracks, with superb contributions from other male and female voices too.
The swirling arrangements include Latin percussion; the oud (from which we derive our word “lute”) and the sentur (an Iranian hammered dulcimer); and Western strings and winds. The moods vary from snappy and joyous (“The Spy,” “Don’t Bite Me Baby”) to mystical and devotional (“My Father,” “Water and Fire”), defiant (“Beautiful Boy”) to contemplative (“Land of Spain”), with a taste of jazz fusion (“Without Myself”). I’m giving only the English titles; the songs are mostly sung in Arabic, Hebrew, Romance (early Spanish) and Farsi.
Awash in talent, Soldier’s assemblage of singers and instrumentalists includes David Castellano, who is especially remarkable at capturing in his vocals the amalgam of cultures that was the golden age of Andalusia. Centuries ago three religions and multiple nationalities lived for a time in fertile peace in today’s Spain.
Zajal evokes the spirit of that time and place through a modern lens. This music offers a lesson for today too; and it’s the kind of album the whole world should hear. It’s a cliché to say that music is the “universal language.” But Soldier and his ensemble show there’s deep truth to it. And they do it with an uplifting sense of hopefulness.
Dave Soldier’s Zajal is available now.