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Anouar Brahem

Blue Maqams


by Ian Mann

February 09, 2018


A remarkable album that looks destined to become an ECM classic. Brahem’s writing is both melodic and accessible but it’s the performances that help to take the music to a whole other level.

Anouar Brahem

“Blue Maqams”

(ECM Records ECM 2580 Bar Code 576 7265)

Anouar Brahem is a Tunisian oud player and occasional vocalist who is best known to jazz audiences thanks to his long running association with the Munich based ECM record label founded by producer Manfred Eicher.

Born in 1957 Brahem studied the oud at the National Conservatory in Tunis but in 1981 moved to Paris for four years where he composed music for Tunisian cinema and theatre. However his sojourn in the French capital also introduced him to other musical genres, including jazz.

In 1989 Brahem signed to ECM, releasing “Barzakh”, his début for the label in 1991. A virtuoso player of his chosen instrument, his work has done much to bring the oud to the attention of Western European and North American listeners.

During his lengthy tenure with ECM Brahem has released a series of albums in various instrumental formats and with an impressive variety of personnel. His blend of traditional Arabic music and jazz has found him enjoying fruitful collaborations with some of ECM’s big hitters including saxophonists Jan Garbarek and John Surman, bassists Dave Holland and Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen.

“Blue Maqams” represents Brahem’s tenth outing for ECM and it’s an album that is likely to be of particular interest to British jazz listeners. The quartet line up features British born , US based bassist Dave Holland, who appeared alongside Surman on Brahem’s 1998 trio album “Thimar”. The group also includes the British pianist Django Bates and another first time Brahem collaborator, the esteemed American drummer Jack DeJohnette.

The press reaction to “Blue Maqams” has been universally positive. I have to admit to knowing little about Brahem’s music before hearing this recording but after listening to this thoroughly beguiling album I can only add to the chorus of critical approval.

It’s possible that this may be because this is one of the most obviously ‘jazz’ album that Brahem has made. It’s rare for him to record with a ‘conventional’ jazz rhythm section, the last occasion being the “Khomsa” album of 1994 which included the Scandinavian rhythm pairing of Danielsson and Christensen.

But what a team he has chosen this time, Holland and DeJohnette go back a long way, having first played together in bands led by Miles Davis. They have worked together many times since, including the Gateway trio in which they collaborated with the late guitarist John Abercrombie. Holland’s affinity with both Brahem and DeJohnette acts as the glue that holds “Blue Maqams” together.

It’s possible that this may have been a trio album, the format in which Brahem has most frequently recorded. Bates was added at the suggestion of producer Manfred Eicher and, as John Fordham suggested in The Guardian, he acts as a kind of ‘wild card’ , adding a welcome dash of vivacity and colour to what might otherwise have been a more intense and introspective trio session.

Brahem’s interesting and informative liner notes shed some light on the compositional and recording processes that shape this album of all original material. Most of the pieces were written between 2011 and 2017 but Brahem also takes the opportunity to revisit two earlier compositions, “Bahia” and Bom Dia Rio”, both dating back to 1990. The newer pieces are structured around ‘maqams’, the modes of traditional Arabic music, giving some of these pieces something of an affinity with the modal style of jazz pioneered by Miles Davis and others.

The album commences with the distinctive sound of Brahem’s unaccompanied oud introducing his composition “Opening Day”. He’s then joined by Holland on double bass, the two stringed instruments blending together beautifully, the deep understanding between the two musicians instantly apparent. DeJohnette’s crisp cymbal work and subtly nuanced drumming helps to propel the music forward, with Bates later entering the fray on piano. The leader’s oud sets the pace early on but his mid tune dialogue with Bates is one of the most absorbing factors of the seven minute opener which also includes passages where bass and piano come to the fore in a composite group performance.

In his notes Brahem writes warmly about Bates’ creativity and inventiveness and it’s the pianist who introduces the ten minute long “La Nuit” and, again, it’s the newly discovered chemistry between Brahem and Bates that again impresses on a lengthy passage of totally absorbing dialogue.
This is followed by a passage of chillingly beautiful solo piano from Bates before a closing section featuring the full quartet, the music now given subtle propulsion by the promptings of Holland, who solos briefly, and DeJohnette. The delicately detailed drumming of the latter is again a delight, this album must surely be one of the most purely musical performances the venerable drummer has ever recorded.

There’s further evidence of this on the introduction to the title track as DeJohnette’s mallet rumbles and cymbal splashes complement Brahem’s opening statement on the oud. Holland’s bass adds depth to the sound while Bates adds a splash of colour to one of Brahem’s most gorgeous melodies.
A central passage featuring unaccompanied oud reaches deep into the traditional Arab music that Brahem studied in his youth and there’s an aching melancholy about it that is enhanced by a typically spacious Manfred Eicher production.  A closing ensemble passage is simply beautiful and features Bates at his most lyrical.

“Bahia” was first recorded by Brahem on “Madar”, his 1994 release featuring Jan Garbarek. It’s a very different performance here, given by the trio of Brahem, Holland and DeJohnette. A wistful solo introduction features the leader on oud and vocal, and presages a more muscular trio section featuring Brahem’s virtuoso oud playing underscored by Holland’s powerful bass lines and DeJohnette’s fluid, colourful drumming.

Bates returns for “La Passante”, introducing the piece with a limpidly beautiful passage of solo piano. Eventually he’s joined by Brahem’s oud for a charming but understated musical conversation. It’s all very lovely.

The second of the earlier pieces, “Bom Dia Rio” begins with the leader’s solo ruminations for oud and voice before Holland’s vibrant bass groove steers music into sunnier waters with Brahem and Bates again dovetailing neatly. Holland almost assumes the lead at times and he also features as a soloist, his playing melodic, resonant and highly dexterous. Brahem also features as a soloist as the music slips into trio mode prior to the return of Bates.

“Persepolis’s Mirage” begins with another inspired dialogue between Brahem and Bates. These two musicians seem to have forged an immediate, instinctive chemistry and one suspects that this will not be the last time the pair play together. Holland and DeJohnette gradually sidle into the conversation by setting up a rolling groove. With expansive solos later coming from both Brahem and Bates this is perhaps the piece most closely aligned to, and reminiscent of, the modal jazz of the 1960s.

Bates’ lyrical solo piano arpeggios usher in “The Recovered Road To Al-Sham”. Brahem joins him in a brief conversation before embarking on a virtuoso unaccompanied passage of his own. Eventually Holland and DeJohnette enter the proceedings to set up an insistently propulsive groove that encourages an arcing, immaculately constructed solo from Bates.

The album concludes with the eleven minute “Unexpected Outcome” which commences with a subtle opening exchange between old friends Brahem and Holland. The bassist later sets up an implacable groove around which Brahem structures his improvisations, deploying both voice and oud. His singing is surprisingly effective, his playing of the oud dazzling. Bates takes over, stretching out on an expansive but skilfully crafted piano solo before linking up with his new friend Brahem towards the close.

This really is a remarkable album that looks destined to become an ECM classic. Brahem’s writing is both melodic and accessible but it’s the performances that help to take the music to a whole other level. The chemistry between the four musicians is palpable from the very first tune with Eicher’s decision to introduce Bates to Brahem totally vindicated. This is a truly international ‘supergroup’ - but it’s one that works brilliantly.

The album is a triumph for the producer, who not only helped to bring the band together but also provides a pinpoint mix. This is a production of pristine clarity in which every musical nuance and sonic detail can be heard and appreciated. More importantly Eicher encourages the creativity of the musicians, unlike some recordings on the label one doesn’t sense that the musicians are in any way being pressed to comply with some kind of ‘ECM’ aesthetic, even if the end result contains many of the very qualities with which the label is most closely associated.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed this recording. Brahem is excellent throughout and both Holland and DeJohnette turn in performances that rank among the best of their careers. These are two now comparatively veteran musicians who are still right on top of their game. Brahem has lauded them for their listening skills and there’s plenty of evidence to support that praise here.

But from my slightly biased position as a UK jazz listener it’s the instant rapport between Brahem and Bates that is perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this exceptional album. “Blue Maqams” comes hot on the heels of Bates’ own offering for ECM, the excellent “The Study Of Touch”, recorded with his Beloved Trio. Both albums serve to remind just what a brilliant and intuitive acoustic pianist Bates is and it’s good to see his talent enjoying the kind of international exposure that ECM offers. Long may it continue.


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