Tunisian master Anouar Brahem plays the oud, an eleven or twelve-string lute at the center of small-group Arabic classical music; he has impressive credentials in the jazz domain, having recorded with Jan Garbarek, John Surman and David Holland. Le Voyage de Sahar
is Brahem's eighth original ECM release as a leader, and his second with a trio filled out by pianist François Couturier and accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier.
On the aural evidence of this new record, Brahem is also an artist at a creative crossroads. Two paths are open to him. He could opt to expand the tonal palette of Western group-based improvisational music (let's call it "jazz ), bringing to it the textural and chromatic resources his instrument offers, as well as the structural characteristics of Arabic music. Or he could specialize in purveying a kind of ambient music suited to high-end boutiques, cultured dinner parties and (especially) film soundtracks. In fact, I fear that Brahem has already opted in favor of the second route. It's a lucrative choice and not entirely dishonorable. I only bring it up because it's a shame: Le Voyage de Sahar is sprinkled with passages that confirm that the first option, more challenging but also more likely to be smiled upon by musical history, is still a live one.
The principal problem: an element of blandness enters pretty much whenever Brahem does not occupy center stage, and this in turn has to do with the way the group takes on the Arabic song form exploited here. One way of integrating this music into a jazz-like context is to emphasize its rhythmic variation and novel approach to improvisation, as Brahem does at several junctures. At these moments (as in the middle of "L'Aube, in "La chambre var., and "Été andalous ), the leader solos over a sustained, pulseless chord.
From a narrow Western perspective, another way of playing this music is as rather banal chord progressions. Pianist Couturier, for all his lovely filigreed flourishes, essentially does just that, and his comping consequently sounds kind of maudlin. This is especially apparent in the movie music of the title track, "Vague / E la nave va, and "La chambre. Matinier's accordion is generally just atmospheric, but when he moves to the forefront, he has a pleasantly assertive quality, as on the slightly more up-tempo "Nuba.
Le Voyage de Sahar is skillfully executed but ultimately decorative. Perhaps Brahem will continue to explore alternative group configurations and give greater prominence to the solo oud, perhaps not. I'm eager to hear where he goes next, but I'm not holding my breath.