Anouar Brahem ‘Blue Maqams’ 2LP/CD (ECM) 5/5

In the late 1990’s Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem recorded one of his most memorable collaborative albums with Dave Holland and John Surman in ‘Thimar’, a live performance of which was aired at the South Bank in London and viewed by this writer. Brahem this time round reprises his collaboration with Holland, and intriguingly adds the significant talents of drummer Jack deJohnette, and one of the UK’s most talented pianists in Django Bates on this all-originals composing date. The result is one of the year’s most successful fusions of world roots and jazz, and this may just be Brahem’s finest ECM album to date.

The music develops its own logical and natural patter, with all instrumentalists afforded sufficient time and space to explore. A fine way to commence the album is with the relaxed groove of ‘Opening day’, and here the rhythm section enters gradually, with some delightful Oriental sounding vamps that thankfully do not descend into parody. On the reposing title track, a solo oud intro leads into some subtle percussive work from deJohnette, and then piano and oud engage in a duet. As with the rest of the album, the most is reflective and thus the mood and mode is blue throughout. Interestingly, two of the most interesting melodies are of compositions that the leader has had in his locker for some time and they both allude to the music and spirit of Brazil. On ‘Bom dia Rio’ (‘Good day Rio de Janeiro’) the lengthy intro on oud includes voicings, presumably by Brahem, but what truly impresses here are the long silent spaces between notes. Both Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal have used this technique to devastating effect and it is one of the major attractions of this recording, made at the Avatar studios in New York, the de facto North American home of ECM. The mood is distinctly Latin on ‘Bahia’, on which the oud is made to sound like a flamenco guitar and the catchy motif makes this a sheer delight. Anouar Brahem has made a virtue out of quirky titles for his instrumentals and with ‘The recovered road to Al-Sham’, the tone struck seemingly depicts a much starker vision with an extended piano solo in the intro. What is clear from this recording as a whole is that Anour Brahem has a clear vision of what he is seeking to achieve and the musicians on board this project are of a sufficiently high calibre to deliver the goods with aplomb. An outstanding recording that easily fits into the best albums of the year category.

Tim Stenhouse