Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem has recorded for ECM since 1990; Le Pas du Chat Noir
(2002) achieved the most critical acclaim. The trio which made that record comes together again for Le Voyage de Sahar
, creating an understated tour de force that builds on the former album. While the "ECM sound" very much helps create the feeling, the image of a spotlight on the trio, otherwise surrounded by darkness, playing to a massive, totally silent, mesmerized audience, keeps appearing. The music creates an intense intimacy as the trio explores a relatively small musical space very deeply.
Each tune tells a story with swells, rather than musical extremes. The unusual instrumentation (oud, accordion, piano) very quickly blends into a unit, and it's sometimes a surprise to discover who is playing a solo at any given moment, because anyone can step forward without notice. While Brahem is the leader and he takes the lion's share of the solos on oud (with much vocalization), Francois Couturier's piano is never far awayeither providing rhythmic support, echoing the oud's line, or filling out the harmony. Jean-Louis Matinier, on accordion, is more felt than heard, adding color most of the time, except on "Les Jardins de Ziryab," where he stands out.
As the record moves through its thirteen tracks, the predominant minor-key music never wears on the ear, since it falls into a major mode many times like a burst of sunlight, as in "La Chambre." The energy level of the tracks is also very well-managed; "Nuba" brings a welcome dance feel to the proceedings.
The French-Tunisian nexus on which this music squarely sits is momentarily shaken in "Cordoba" by a few very obvious notes from outside the established scale, possibly signaling a Western jazz side of Brahem that has thus far been submerged. The treatment of "Halfaouine" also comes unexpectedly, since the structure produced both by phrase repetition and direct harmonic movement is the clearest yet.
What might also come as a surprise to the listener unfamiliar with this part of the musical world is how recognizable the central theme of "La Chambre Variations" is, after all of the pure scale playing. This tune is also a wonderful example of how the trio's sound seems stable while the foreground player constantly changes.
Given time to color the air and the room, Le Voyage de Sahar
will win over listeners willing to allow its small-scale details accumulate and gradually develop their entrancing power. As it creates its definite, highly defined and refined mood, this album seduces slowly, but deeply.