Brooklynite Alex Skolnick is best known as the lead guitarist of thrash outfit Testament and the jazz group Alex Skolnick Trio. But his latest project Planetary Coalition represents a radically new direction, as it unites 27 musicians from around the globe onto an album of world music. Tuesday night, over a dozen of these musicians will perform with Skolnick at Meridian23 for the official record release show.
"You're not supposed to do a project like this," says Skolnick of industry expectations for chart-toppers like himself. "I'm supposed to be the guy from Testament."
See also: Testament's Alex Skolnick Went From Geek to Guitar God
This ambitious enterprise has been two years in the making, from 2012 when Skolnick assembled a quintet to perform at Make Music New York in Union Square, to the finished product -- a 75-minute, 14-song epic released last week. The record explores uncommonly diverse musical styles, including Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean, Indian, Asian, Latin, and Gypsy.
The artists who lent their talents to these indigenous genres are as expert in their respective crafts as Skolnick is in his. "It's so humbling and fulfilling," the guitarist says about playing with these musicians. "Any one of them, you can put an instrument into their hands with no production and no studio trickery, and they will create something wonderful." Many of the instruments used will be foreign to most Westerners (ever heard of a santoor, or a darbouka?), but one goal of the project is to bring this music to a new audience.
The stories behind the songs are equally compelling. For "Salto," Skolnick reached out to percussion group Raza Trunca, based in rural Argentina, who had written him about the exploitation of farm laborers in their community. They contributed a folk rhythm called a Chacarera that's native to their part of the country. On "Mojito," Grammy-winning Cuban drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez performs alongside his daughter Jennifer Hernandez, the pianist of Cuban metal band Escape.
Even cultures known for conflict with one another collaborate harmoniously on the album. Both Turkish and Greek musicians play on "Taksim Square," inspired by the 2013 Gezi Park protests. And Palestinian oud player Adnan Joubran and Israeli percussionist Gadi Seri appear on back-to-back tracks. "Musicians have so much respect for other musicians," says Skolnick, "that I think it goes beyond politics, and it's something the rest of the world could take note of."
Understanding music as a universal language gave the guitarist the confidence to approach non-Western song traditions. "I think I sense the common threads," he explains. "Just like there are common threads in language, there are common threads in music." He adds that playing with experts in these styles also helped. "I figured, if I'm working with people that speak these music languages, I'll bet I can find a way. They can give me pointers, or it will just happen naturally. And everybody was incredibly supportive."
The future of the project is likely to expand beyond the music, with film components created by Maddy Samaddar (an architect and the designer of the album artwork) and educational opportunities, such as a performance at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey on November 29. But the core motive for Skolnick remains deeply personal. "I hope people like it," he says, "but I also didn't do it for anybody else. On the one hand, it's shining a light on all these great musicians, and I'm sharing them with the world. At the same time, this is something I wanted to do. There's no commercial intentions there. It's just purely for me. But I think if people give it a chance, they'll like it."