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Anouar Brahem: Blue Maqams

Mark Sullivan By

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Tunisian oudist/composer Anouar Brahem has been playing with jazz improvisers since the 1980s. But his earliest ECM recordings, Barzakh (1991) and Conte de l'Incroyable Amour (1992) stayed firmly in the Arabic music tradition. His recordings with jazz players began with Madar (1994) with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and tabla player Shaukat Hussain; Thimar (1997) with bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist John Surman made a fuller synthesis of both traditions. Blue Maqams takes the approach further, bringing Brahem's Arabic music to a full jazz band treatment (1995's Khomsa had a full jazz rhythm section, but was a stylistically different large ensemble with accordion).

The word "maqams" in the title refers to the system of melodic modes used in Arab music. Brahem has never considered himself to be a jazz musician, but he finds common ground with jazz improvisers. "Opening Day" opens with solo oud, joined by Holland's bass, then finally drummer Jack DeJohnette as the theme is introduced. Pianist Django Bates (Loose Tubes, Bill Bruford's Earthworks) makes his entry a couple of minutes in, at first in gentle call and response with the oud. "La Nuit" is mainly an oud/piano duet (an approach repeated on "La Passante"). Bates' delicate unaccompanied piano solo leads into a new theme, and a memorable bass solo.

"Bahia" is one of two older tunes revisited here. It has a very memorable theme, and there's an energetic oud/drums duet at the end: a space for the otherwise restrained DeJohnette to let loose. "The Unrecovered Road To Al-Sham" again demonstrates what a good choice Bates was for the piano chair. He opens the tune unaccompanied, which is followed by an unaccompanied oud solo—the rhythm section comes in for the last couple minutes. "Unexpected Outcome" ends the set with an oud/bass opening. When the rhythm section joins in there is an uncredited vocal, as there was on "Bom Dia Rio" (I'm guessing Brahem), and an extended piano solo over a vamp, joined by Brahem's oud at the end. It's an energetic ending to a collection of music with a broad emotional range.

This is the closest thing to a jazz recording Brahem has made—but it is still completely his own vision, aided by an exceptionally sympathetic group of players. Holland continues to demonstrate the fit shown previously on Thimar, as well as his easy pairing with longtime rhythm section partner DeJohnette. DeJohnette successfully negotiates the difficult dynamic balance with the much softer oud. And Bates—whose recent ECM debut The Study Of Touch was the recording that convinced Brahem to choose him—is the real wild card of the session, his beautiful, imaginative playing illuminating Brahem's compositions at every turn.

Track Listing: Opening Day; La Nuit; Blue Maqams; Bahia; La Passante; Bom Dia Rio; Persepoli's Mirage; The Recovered Road to Al-Sham; Unexpected Outcome.

Personnel: Anouar Brahem: oud; Dave Holland: upright bass; Jack De Johnette: drums; Django Bates: piano.

Title: Blue Maqams | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: ECM Records

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