Album Reviews

© Russell W Elliot 1999

Last Updated 26 August 1999

Primal Whispers
Image © Bibi Noor Productions 1992

Nights One and A Thousand
Image © Bibi Noor Productions 1997
click on a cover image to access the artist's website
Book Of Kings
Image © Bibi Noor Productions 1999

Throughout the ages artists have created both theatrical and musical performances based on the infamous Tales Of 1001 Arabian Nights. Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral masterpiece, Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite from "Thousand and One Nights" Op. 35, formed the basis for Renaissance's Song Of Scheherazade (Dunford/ Thatcher/ Tout/ Sullivan/ Camp, 1974). This 25-minute long progressive rock classic, which tells the story of Scheherazade and The Sultan, was the genesis of and foundation for Michael Dunford's plan to develop a major West End musical based upon it. Showcased at the Royal Academy Of Music in 1997, the musical is now financed and progressing towards a London opening in the autumn of 2000.

Singer/songwriter Scheherazade 'ZaZa' Saleh's second release Nights One and A Thousand is yet another interpretation of the story and became the impetus to further investigate her music. Impressed with the extent of her classical training and effective use of Middle Eastern themes, we have thoroughly enjoyed ZaZa's "new world pop" music. Now based in California, this French born artist, raised in Iran and educated in music and stage-designing in Italy, comes from a musical family. Her mother, Monir Vakili, was Iran's foremost opera singer. Aside from her three stunning albums illustrated above and reviewed below, ZaZa's credits include a Grammy Award nomination for a song entitled "Catch A Falling Angel" (Nash Bridges/CBS) she wrote with Roberta Donnay and Mark Pistola.

ZaZa's first album, Primal Whispers (1992), provides a thorough introduction to her vocal and songwriting range yet the second album, Nights One and A Thousand (1997), shows that she can combine these skills with an ability to weave a complex story into a concept album. ZaZa's latest project, Book Of Kings (1999) is a highly polished work of extraordinary depth and as another extremely well-produced concept album certainly represents her best work to date.

Primal WhispersExecutive produced by Narada Michael Walden (Grammy Award Producer), this 1992 release has won great international acclaim. It was co-produced by ZaZa, Randy Mead, Bob Mocarsky and Roberta Donnay. Most likley best categorised as an easy listening album, it features nine radio-suitable almost-pop tracks that fully explore ZaZa's singing and songwriting talent.

The overall recording and musical production is supberb with the vocal work being particularly well mixed, never over-shadowed by the well-arranged and lush instrumentation with drums and percussion particularly effective throughout. The majority of the tracks are sung in English although one track in French and another in Persian provide a worldly ethnic flavour to the artist's first release. The variety and sequence of the tracks within the album is particularly enjoyable.

The clarity and power of ZaZa's voice perfectly suits the album's ballads yet the multi-tracked backing vocals add additional dimension and warmth when called for. Bibi Noor Productions writes, "the song 'Papa' won ZaZa prestigious awards [while] 'Mikham Bargardam Iroon (Looking For Persia)' has become an anthem for Persians all over the world." One short listen to both is all it takes to understand why. "Longing For Persia" has a very catchy international melody. The piano, string arrangements and percussion passages within "Les Hirondelles (The Swallows)" are both particularly well produced and perfectly suit the melody of the French-lyric tune.

The title track is worth special mention. With extremely light acoustic instrumentation, this is a tremendous vocal track. Overall, this is a great debut album, and an excellent introduction to the artist's work; with individually enjoyable songs and certainly worthy of a very thorough listen, it is really only an introduction to the breadth of ZaZa's work.

Nights One and A ThousandReleased in 1997, executive produced in part by Narada Michael Walden and Preston Glass, this concept album has received an overwhelming response. The album was produced by Matt Rohr. Zaza's unique musical interpretation of the story of Scheherazade is more thoughtfully instrumented than her former release but uncompromising in its attention to the expressive vocals included throughout. The story is effectively told through the music and revolves around the relationship of Scheherazade with the Caravan leader and the Sultan. As with other versions of the story, a celebration and escape is included within the story. Extensive Middle Eastern ethnic instrumentation supports the vocal passages and aids in the visualisation of the listening experience.

Bibi Noor Productions writes, "Evocative, mystical and deeply haunting, it tells the story of Scheherazade ... [with] some surprising twists and turns ... linked by a romantic theme." Perhaps best viewed as a soundtrack with potential for a stage production, the album is most enjoyable when listened to end-to-end, and like other major musical soundtracks, several of the album's numbers clearly stand out on their own merits.

Immediately following the instrumental introduction is perhaps the catchiest song on the album. Entitled "Caravan," it is a dynamic, moving and highly accessible number with lush orchestral instrumentation, vast vocal virtuousity and an almost world-pop appeal. The jazzy "Soul On Fire" with its strong melody, robust chorus and soaring vocal excursions is sure to please many. The song reminded us at times of songs by Xyra and Verborgen whose album is also reviewed at this website.

With its excellent production, broad range of instrumentation and stunning vocals, the album is best characterised as a masterwork. Nights One and A Thousand does a tremendous job delivering a musical variation of the Scheherazade story and fully demonstrates the breadth and depth of ZaZa's talent. Worth a journey that will likely not end with this release, the album is certainly a must listen.

Book Of KingsZaZa's musical adaptation of the poem "Shahnameh," written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in the tenth century, has resulted in a highly polished concept album, complete with sound effects. The album was produced by Gary Brown, Celso Alberti and Zaza. It features ten tracks with catchy, dynamic and moving ethnic instrumentation and a vast array of stunning vocal performances. Although primarily a vocal album, the rich instrumental arrangements assist in the visualisation of the story. The album is certainly equivalent to the epic nature of the poem in its soundtrack proportions and as her previous album is best listened to beginning-to-end.

Although Middle Eastern in its origins, the album is far more worldly than an association with this one region would suggest. Celtic flute and new age synth passages appear within the arrangements. Book Of Kings represents the pinnacle of ZaZa's instrumental songwriting work to date, yet it is refreshing that the vocal work, especially the highly effective use of vocalise, has been arranged with equal care and attention to detail. ZaZa's evocative vocals fully demonstrate her vast range, sheer energy and a controlled power to express the most heartfelt emotions. The duet sung by ZaZa and David Worm, "Zal & Rudabeh," is especially memorable and illustrates the stage production potential of this work.

Book Of Kings is a true testament to ZaZa's singing and songwriting talent. The album's uniqueness rests in its mixture of instrumental and vocal numbers and their ability to draw listeners into the story through the complex and well-produced arrangements. Certainly a masterwork of epic proportions, it is a must listen, and the highlight of the artist's career to date.

Soundbites from ZaZa's three albums are available at her website and the CDs can be ordered from here. These sites are certainly worth a visit if you want to further explore ZaZa's music.

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