Anouar BRAHEM: Blue Maqams – ECM 2580, 76:00 ( 10/13/17) : *****:

Plus A Discography of the ECM Recordings of Anouar Brahem

(Anouar Brahem; oud, Dave Holland; bass, Jack DeJohnette; drums, Django Bates; piano)

For the first two decades after its founding recording of 1969, the label ECM was dedicated to refining its aesthetic creed, “the next best sound to Silence.” In the context of those turbulent times, it offered jazz musicians a way out of the conflicts of disputatious styles: post-bop, free jazz, fusion, world jazz etc. Here was a label that created an Über-Identitat. Starting from the sound—overly resonant spacious acoustics with dazzling clarity—and working towards a cool detachment from jazz references and with a penchant for moody lyricism, modal effusiveness and sheer beauty, the label gained prominence among hard-core jazz enthusiasts while finding a much wider audience than any in the United States had ever enjoyed. The most representative recordings of this period are the piano trios of Steve Kuhn, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Bobo Stenson, inter alia, each achieving an individual statement while contributing to a durable formula for a new style of improvised music.

Towards the end of the ‘80s, two developments led to a significant expansion of the label. First was the foundation of a sub-label called ECM New Series, which seriously engaged with Classical Music and new composers. Second, Manfred Eicher began to take an interest in world music (not “World Music,” a confection of globalized pop music that is a marketing concept). involving encounters with musical traditions as distinct as African, Pakistani, Latin American and Middle-Eastern. What was discovered in these encounters was, however, the malleability and potential for cross-fertilization. In the end, the ECM aesthetic was no mere additive, but rather the matrix through which traditional musics became modern.

Amouar Brahem,Barzakh Album Cover

Amouar Brahem – Barzakh

A superb instance of this can be seen in a record (Barzakh) that appeared in 1990 to just acclaim by Tunisian oud-master Anouar Brahem. At the time, the artist was thirty-three and director of the Musical Ensemble of City of Tunis. That year saw him relocate to Paris, where his restless curiosity led inevitably to his discovery of new forms of improvisation and new musical languages, amidst which Keith Jarrett made an indelible mark. How Brahem, whose recorded resumé up to this point can be found on cassette tapes circulating in his own country, suddenly ends up in Manfred Eicher’s legendary studio is not clear. The result though is the album Barzakh. I can think of no other artists who makes such an auspicious debut as Brahem, especially on the initial track, which is an improvisation called Raf Raf. On one hand, it sounds like traditional Arabic music in its technical aspect. It is a Maqam (basically a scale which has traditional associations and prescribed melodic constraints) elaborated in a dazzle of musical ideas without straying from its modal underpinning. Yet it seems to burst the confines of traditional music. A folk music almost by definition meets the expectations of the listener rather than baffles them, which is what this music does. It evokes Baroque improv—after all, the oud is cousin to the lute, once the supreme instrument in a tradition of refined improvised dance music. It is also Andalusian, with something of the controlled frenzy and passion of that idiom. In any case, it is a piece of virtuosity and joy nicely captured by Eicher in his inimitable way– passionate and cool at the same time, rooted and universal.

Barzakh features meditative oud solos and ensemble pieces with two colleagues Bechir Selmi on the violin and Lassad Hosni on Percussion. Titles of songs are mostly in Arabic (they will switch to French later in his career). A good number of them are astringent; the violin is played in uncompromising middle-eastern tradition with little in the way of vibrato and a whining intonation which gives the music a somberness which is not always alleviated by the bubbling rhythms of Hosni hand-drums.The cover is a remarkable calligraphic collage. On the whole, the album serves as fine introduction to a Tunisian musician in the process of assembling a new art music.

Brahem_Conte de Incroyable Amour Album Cover

Brahem – Conte de Incroyable Amour

One year later, ECM released a second album Conte de Incroyable Amour. It involves a reconfigured ensemble; the clarinet of Barbaros Erkose and the ney of Kudsi Erguner replace the violin. Lassad Hosni remains on bendir and darbouka. Overall, the mood is even more restrained (perhaps Eicher’s influence). The compositions are more well-defined. It conveys the serenity and rapt attention of chamber music. Yet the maqams and inflections of middle-eastern music language persist. There is nothing of fusion or a reaching for jazzy effects. The title track is a marvel of elegance. At the time, I considered this to be among ECM’s finest recordings to date and I still find it to be one the finest from the 90’s.

Anouar Brahem next appears on Madar (2000) with iconic ECM artist Jan Garbarek and tabla virtuoso Shaukat Hussain. With the first entry, the thwack and gurgle of the tabla skins situates the music in the idiom of the sub-continent. The theme of this nearly 17 minute raga, Sull Lull, is based on a traditional Norwegian melody, consisting of a simple descending and then rising dotted figure, which will be the frame for a stirring group improvisation. Brahem gamely holds his own on unison passages and then delivers especially fine improvisations on the folk mode of the tune. However, Garbarek’s big sound and even bigger personality dominate this piece, as well as the  equally long raga, Qaws, at the end of the proceedings. In between, there are some lovely Brahem sketches, as well as some fine interactions with the tabla player, who has an uncanny capacity for melodic commentary and is superbly captured in the brilliant soundscape. Fans of Garbarek would not want to miss this recording; but it is non-essential within the Brahem discography.

Brahem - Thimar, Album Cover

Brahem – Thimar

In 1998, the recording Thimar features a most inspired alliance with Dave Holland, gives the Tunisian oud player an opportunity to look outward over the jazz horizon and at the same time to go deeper into the groove. Holland was imprinted on modal music and is the undisputed master of funky mixed-meter vamps. On this record, he finds some of his most persuasive ostinatos in a cooler register than he is used to. The third member of the trio is the Brit reed player John Surman, who plays both soprano saxophone and bass clarinet. All the titles bear Arabic names and with two exceptions, the compositions of the oud player. The playing is of a consistently high order. There are supremely mesmerizing moments when the bass and oud become ravishing. Stylistic features recede, and the music becomes timeless and universal. If this recording falls short of a masterpiece, it is owing to a few moments when the soprano seems at odds with the stringed instruments, this in spite of Surman’s dazzling technique and sympathetic rapport with his peers.

By Astrakan Cafe (2000), Brahem has become so confident of his compositional prowess that he is capable of scaling back to even more spacious simplicity. Erkose, the inimitable Turkish-Gypsy clarinetist, is back, as is Lassad Hosni on hand drums. The title track bookends the session, first as a solo and finally as a trio. It is a memorable tune and perfect study of the oudist’s art. Manfred Eicher recorded this in an Austrian Monastery of St Gerold. Indeed there are some very special acoustics involved, a special bloom on the middle range of the mulberry bowl of the oud and an extra za’atar in the percussive flavorings. It is the second masterpiece and will endure as long as Arabian lute is honored.

Brahem’s efforts to adapt the oud and the maqams to such a variety of improvised traditions—Jazz, Turkish, Andalusian—were highly inventive, but his ambitions to have the oud meet the two definitive Mediterranean instruments which define both classical and folk music—the piano and the accordion—are remarkable. Surely these instruments were familiar to the young Tunisian as he was growing up in Tunisia, which after all leans out towards Europe both culturally and geographically. But who has ever dreamed up a trio involving piano, accordion, and oud? It doesn’t seem like it would work; the last thing an oud needs is a harmonic straight-jacket, not to mention the problem of sonic balance. Khomsa (1995) debuts his new companion Francois Couturier, who will play on three more records over the years. It also features the accordion of Richard Galliano, as well as the old ECM Keith Jarrett rhythm section of Palle Danielsson and Jon Christiansen. It kicks off with an strident composition by the accordionist and proceeds to wander across a great range of styles from simple modal themes to folksy ensembles with violin and saxophone. There is more than a little of a sound-track feel here and there, but the most telling numbers are the scaled back oud meditations. Khomsa contains fine pieces but taken as a whole the session has too many failed experiments with instruments out of sorts with one another.

A second effort, Le Pas du Chat Noir (2002) pares down and straightens out the concept, now with accordionist Jean Louis Matinier working beside Couturier. Fittingly, all the titles are in French. Matinier is sensitive to every little shift in the mood, while the pianist effaces himself to a harmonic minimum and finds unprecedented ways to enhance the sonic palette, and shade melodies with cascades of shimmering notes without chordal busyness. It is a major work from the standpoint of composition too. However, Voyage du Sahar (2006) is even better. Now the trio have reached a supreme point of mutual understanding. This recording features to my knowledge some of the finest sounding accordion work on the label. (Matinier is worth checking out on his own terms, especially on a recording Other Worlds Intuition (2007) with Anthony Cox and vibraphonist David Friedman.)

In yet another development, Brahem tries yet another reed player and adds electric bass to join the darbouka/ bendir of Khaled Yassine. The result is seen in The Astounding Eyes of Rita (2009) It is in this reviewer’s opinion his finest work and one of the standout recordings in the ECM catalog. The German Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and  the Swede Bjorn Meyer on bass add a forceful bottom end to the ensemble, as well as lively swing at the middle tempos. There is a flattering congruence between the deeper bass clarinet and the oud. The title track is perfection itself–lyrical, pulsing, veering unexpectedly and swirling with effervescence. The engineering is different too, with the oud closer to the mic, the drums snappier, the low instruments growling darkly but not drowned in resonance.

Blue Maqams, with Anouar Brahem, Album Cover

Anouar Brahem, Blue Maqams

Skipping over a large ensemble recording, Souvenance (2015) on which Brahem the composer takes precedence over the instrumentalist and a well-chosen sampler, Vague (2010) we arrive at the 2017 recording Blue Maqams. Here we have the welcome return of Dave Holland, the first encounter with legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, and the addition of a piano played by Django Bates. The first problem to solve involves the incongruity of the drummer’s fondness for the cymbals and his mainstream jazz kit styles. In fact, it is initially distracting on the first track. But as the groove deepens, the piece becomes airborne on a delicate and carefully nourished pulse. A moment of pure magic ensues with the entrance of Django Bates piano. As with his former keyboardist, this musician knows how to reconstruct the piano into a source of endless impressionist effects, filigrees of melodies, delicate glissandi—everything but chords. In fact, the rapport of piano, bass and drums is so compelling at times that one forgets about the oud player.  On the second track, La Nuit, the oud has taught the piano how to gently rock back and forth on the octave strings. Thereupon a gentle duo broods on a melody, which breaks off into a sigh. Arco bass and shimmering metal from DeJohnette contribute to a dialog which dispenses with overt melodic contours. DeJohnette is superb on the title track, working the toms in conversation with the oud until the theme emerges in a tentative harmonic progression alien to the Brahem idiom.

Bahia recalls the earliest recordings with its bright plucking abetted by gentle vocalise. It doesn’t feel like we have made it to Brazil, but there is a soft zephyr blowing in off of dazzling waters. The mood of uplift inspires the bassist to a fine solo which resolves into a gratifying bass groove. It is a music of smiles, of buoyant optimism. The piano sits out this one, and this allows Brahem occasion to stretch out on a stupendous solo. Bom Dia Rio, a second tune with Brazilian associations, seems more like a nocturnal meditation than a greeting of the day. That is until, Holland lays down one of his all time most stirring bass grooves, with piano and drums swept up in the pulse. The trio sounds like a distillation of all the best ECM piano trios from the top shelf of that genre. Django Bates has his finest moments on a non-linear solo. The band rises upward in a gusty unison preparing the way for concise solos and a reprise. It is a standout moment on the disc.

Persepolis’s Mirage follows, reasserting a more distinctly Arabic Maqam. The piano is left to his own devices trying to figure out the meaning of the piece. An experiment in free improvisation, one thinks.  That is until yet another tricky dotted line makes an entry. The final pieces are just as strong with Django Bates asserting even more in creative embellishment. The title ultimate track, Unexpected Outcome evokes an aspect of Brahem’s musicians productive career. On a label that has a well-developed and perhaps constraining aesthetic, Brahem has made not only some of the most compelling recordings but also some of the most surprising. This will require more listening before it can be judged to belong to the finest recordings mentioned here. But for now we will give it the benefit of the doubt.

The ECM Recordings of Anouar Brahem
Barzakh (1990) ****
Conte de Incroyable Amour (1991) *****
Madar (1994) ***
Khomsa (1995) ***
Thimar (1998) ****½
Astrakan Cafe (2000) *****
Le Pas du Chat Noir (2002)  ***½
Le Voyage de Sahar(2006)  ****
The Astounding Eyes of Rita (2009)*****
Vague (2010) ****
Souvenance (2015)  ****
Blue Maqams (2017) *****

—Fritz Balwit