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Anouar Brahem: The Astounding Eyes of Rita

Dan McClenaghan By

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The Astounding Eyes of Rita rings to life on four resonant notes from Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem, joined in short order by the deep, rich tone of Klaus Gesing's bass clarinet. The music sounds ancient, like something from an old civilization, full of past truths that still hold true.

Manfred Eicher, the man in charge at ECM Records, has been known to inspire, from talented artists, consistently beautiful and sometimes eccentric (American ethno-centricity speaking) music from unusual instrumental combinations. His ECM sound—with notable exceptions including Keith Jarrett's Standard Trio and Trio Beyond, to name two—leans toward spaciousness and subtlety with an egalitarian chamber music approach. The Astounding Eyes of Rita fits into that chamber aesthetic, its quartet teaming German bass clarinetist Gesing with Brahem's Middle Eastern oud, backed by Swedish bassist Bjorn Meyer—known best for his groove-heavy Zen-Funk work in Nik Bärtsch's Ronin—and Lebanese percussionist Khaled Yassine, to make a tranquil world music that embraces the inspired introspection and organic breathing room that has become de rigueur with the German record label.

The oud, the ancestor to the Western lute, is not your everyday jazz instrument. The pear-shaped, big-bodied string instrument that, to the uneducated ear, doesn't sound hugely different from the acoustic guitar, is sharper in tone, perhaps, and more succinct in its notations. The bass clarinet adds a Western element; introduced to many by Bennie Maupin's dark wood moaning within the sonic conglomeration of Miles Davis' Bitch's Brew (Columbia, 1969), its divine sound, showcased here in a quartet setting, is too seldom heard in jazz. The darbouka—a Middle-Eastern goblet drum with a crisp, resonant pop—bolsters the world music flavor of the set.

"The Lover of Beirut" has a peaceful feeling—restrained, unhurried and spiritual. "Dance With Waves" gives off a glow of peaceful momentum, while "Stopover At Djibouti" evokes images of teaming streets, gregarious interactions and convivial equanimity, the richly mellifluous voice of the bass clarinet punctuated by the concise declarations of the oud and darbouka.

The title tune explores the mysteries and the beauty of "Rita's" eyes, sounding like a celebration of something holy. Indeed, the quartet's musical immersion in things revered gives the Astounding Eyes of Rita a feeling of deep spirituality expressed by these serenely gorgeous sounds.

Track Listing: The Lover of Beirut; Dance With Waves; Stopover at Djibouti; The Astounding Eyes of Rita; Al Birwa; Galilee Mon Amour; Waking State; For No Apparent Reason.

Personnel: Anouar Brahem: oud; Klaus Gesing: bass clarinet; Björn Meyer: bass; Khaled Yassine: darbouka, bendir.

Title: The Astounding Eyes Of Rita | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: ECM Records

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