It's been 13 years since David Wall last put out a solo album, but he's hardly been idle. The local singer-songwriter has composed music for films, TV shows and video installations, sung with The Flying Bulgur Klezmer Band, played with jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner, studied to be a cantor and learned Yiddish, among other projects.
No doubt remnants of those experiences found their way into Wall's new album, The Spell I Was Under, even though its songs were mostly influenced by Western music like gospel, blues and soul. The connecting thread Wall found between European-Jewish and American-Christian music is an emphasis on intense vocal expression.
"They're both about the potential for unleashing a kind of unbridled joy," he explained over the phone from his home. "The audience waits for the cantor to express religious ecstasy through this incredible vocalizing, and the same thing happens in gospel music."
Wall first made his mark in the late '80s as lead singer for the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, a popular local band that incorporated soul, funk and rock. Ironically, that experience led him to explore the roots of Jewish music.
"I thought I was appropriating black culture," he recalled. "When the Bourbons moved to New York there were actually black people in the audience. Of course no one cared, but I felt guilty, and I decided to do music that no one would accuse me of appropriating. So I studied Jewish music. I got a gig singing for the Flying Bulgurs, and I had to learn Yiddish, so I went to university and tried to find the ingredients of that music. And the prime ingredient is cantorial music."
Eventually, however, Wall discovered that his musical path was not so direct.
"I've been studying Jewish music for a long time, and the cliche is that I'm going back to my roots," he said. "But in a way that isn't true, 'cause I didn't really have a Jewish upbringing, I grew up in a hippie household and didn't have much Jewish consciousness. My roots are what my mom and dad were playing, which was a lot of things, including R&B, Janis Joplin and The Jefferson Airplane."
In junior high, Wall was introduced to other musical styles by teacher/folk singer Ken Whiteley, who still plays with Wall and produced The Spell I Was Under.
"We had this massive jug band orchestra, and I was in the spoon section," Wall said. "Ken would bring in these old spirituals and Duke Ellington jazz songs. Without knowing it, we were getting this fantastic musical education. So in many ways, he started me on my path."
On the album, Wall's songs are filled out by horns, strings, guitars, piano and percussion, but they're really anchored by his vocals, backed by a heavenly choir made up of Rebecca Campbell, Amoy Levy, Ciceal Levy, Whiteley and Pat Patrick.
"When you have the whole range covered -- the highs and the lows and the middles -- it sounds very rich," he said.
- Mary Dickie