I first became properly aware of the musical genius of Anouar Brahem back in 1998, and like most revelations it was accidental. I had, as it happened, already heard the Tunisian playing his oud – a North African lute-like instrument – first, unconsciously, on the soundtrack he composed for Moufida Tlatli’s 1994 film The Silences of the Palace, and then on Madar, a trio album also made in 1994 which I’d bought because it was fronted, to my mind at least, by saxophonist Jan Garbarek. (In fact it was very much a joint effort.) And when I had my revelation, seeing Brahem play live – it was at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to promote the 1998 album Thimar – I had actually gone mainly because I wanted to see and hear the two men playing with him: saxophonist John Surman and bassist Dave Holland, both of whose careers in jazz I had been following for a couple of decades or more. Still, that concert immediately convinced me that the man on stage with them, playing his oud with an altogether impressive mix of musical virtuosity, sensitivity and invention, was at the very least their equal. Moreover, when I bought the album at the end of the concert, I discovered that most of what we’d heard were Brahem compositions. Here, definitely, was someone to check out.
So I bought his previous albums. His 1991 debut Barzakh and Conte de l‘Incroyable Amour were North African/Middle Eastern in terms of musical inspiration and style, whereas 1995’s Khomsa, with a septet consisting primarily of European musicians, was at times closer to jazz. Still, as became clear with the next two releases – Astrakhan Café and Le Pas du Chat Noir – generic labels are barely relevant to Brahem’s music. While his grounding in (not to mention his mastery of) traditional Arabic musical forms is immediately and constantly evident, his readiness to bend or break with conventions is equally conspicuous. Rest assured, we are not talking about ‘world music’, with all the blandness and compromise that entails. Rather, Brahem’s artistry comes from a very particular approach to musical form and instrumentation, an approach wholly specific to his own distinctive sensibility as a composer and musician.
That said, for all their undimmed brilliance and their fascinating and fruitful changes in personnel, the albums which followed Le Pas du Chat Noir – Le Voyage de Sahar, The Astounding Eyes of Rita (see clip above), and Souvenance, this last a lengthy work composed for quartet and orchestra – had made me wonder a little whether Brahem was getting into a bit of a rut. So it was with great pleasure that I found my fears were groundless upon hearing his new album, Blue Maqams.
From the very first moments – ‘Opening Day’ begins with a characteristically delicate, thoughtful solo introduction from the leader’s oud – the music is unmistakably Brahem’s; but within seconds you know this is also going to be something rather different. Joining the oud, first we have Dave Holland’s rich, thumping bass; then the crisp, light, swinging accompaniment of Jack DeJohnette on drums; and finally, a couple of minutes into the track, Django Bates’ piano makes its magical entrance, fittingly lyrical yet significantly ‘jazzier’ in feel than most of the previous contributions made to Brahem’s music by his regular pianist François Couturier.
‘Opening Day’ sets the tone for most of what follows: eight tracks built around Brahem’s gently melodic compositions, their simple, fluid lines allowing ample room for improvisation. Often, as in the title track, there will be a solo from Brahem – usually but not always in the meditative form of a fantasia or reverie – which demonstrates not only his unflashy brilliance but his acute grasp of the value, here and there, of silence. Equally frequently, however, he has his colleagues stretch out; many of the numbers run to eight, nine or ten minutes, allowing for subtle shifts in mood and no few surprises. ‘Bahia’, for example, begins with Brahem singing wordlessly and dreamily over his solo oud – but then it develops into a strutting, muscular, almost danceable groove with the four musicians interacting to terrific effect. Or there’s the closing track, perhaps the jazziest of all and quite appropriately titled ‘Unexpected Outcome’.
Perhaps the surprises, the new sound, the sheer freshness of it all, should not come as a surprise, since Brahem did consciously plan a jazzier album this time around. (That said, it remains entirely in keeping in every important respect with the tone and direction of his work to date.) Though he’d worked before with Holland in the Thimar trio, DeJohnette – a frequent collaborator with Holland in other settings – is a new partner for the Tunisian; indeed, though Brahem has used traditional Arabic percussion instruments on quite a few of his albums, this is the first time he’s deployed a Western drum set. And then of course there is Bates, whose playing the leader had never heard until it came to deciding on the personnel for Blue Maqams. He knew he wanted a piano for the new tunes, but presumably felt they needed someone with a little more swing than Couturier. Producer and ECM boss Manfred Eicher suggested Bates, whose forthcoming album will mark his debut on the label. When Brahem heard Bates’s playing, he decided to take up the suggestion: a very wise decision, as it turned out.
Oh yes, in case you’re wondering what a ‘maqam’ is, it’s a term used to describe a particular system of Arabic modal music. And if you want to know more about Brahem and his music, you can check out either his own website or the ECM website. But in the meantime you might light to listen to this from the new album; it’s the first half of a track called ‘Bom Dia Rio’. (Sadly you don’t get to hear Brahem and DeJohnette duetting gloriously together, but this will have to do for now.) And there’s plenty more to sample, including filmed concerts, on YouTube. If your French is passable, there’s an interview with Brahem below. And finally, if you find you like Brahem’s music as much as I do, you could always check out his excellent contributions as composer and oud-player to a big-band album entitled Charmediterranéen, featuring France’s Orchestre National de Jazz; the whole album’s a treat.
The portrait photo at the top of this piece is by CS Wesenberg. Blue Maqams is released by ECM on CD and double LP.