For Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, it’s the work itself that sets a direction. He addresses the question of context and setting only as his music “emerges”: “I simply began in my usual way”, he writes in his liner note for Blue Maqams. “Letting the ideas come in of their own accord, with no tendency one way or another in terms of style, form or instrumentation.” He worked on several sketches in parallel, “and what emerged first and then really began to take shape was my desire to blend the sounds of the oud and the piano once again, soon followed by my wish to associate this delicate instrumental combination with a real jazz rhythm section.”
Three brilliant improvisers join him in this album, recorded in New York in May 2017. For Brahem and Dave Holland the album marks a reunion: they first collaborated 20 years ago on the very widely-acclaimed Thimar album. Brahem meets Jack DeJohnette for the first time here, but Holland and DeJohnette have, of course, been frequent musical partners over the last half-century, beginning with ground-breaking work with Miles Davis: their collaborations are legendary. British pianist Django Bates also rises superbly to the challenge of Brahem’s compositions. And Anouar in turn is inspired to some of his most outgoing playing.
Although he has never harbored ambitions to be a jazz player, Anouar has long felt a sense of solidarity with the music’s practitioners: “I first started listening to jazz when I was a teenager living in Tunis in the 70s. At the time, I was passionately devoted to the traditional Arab music I’d had the good fortune to study under the great master Ali Sriti. Paradoxically, I was [also] full of curiosity about other forms of musical expression. The aesthetics of jazz were very different to those of Arab music, but I was attracted by this music that took me into a completely different world, one I felt close to as well. Undoubtedly there is a kind of spontaneity in Arab music, a way of playing that allows musicians to go deep into their own feelings and take some liberties with the original score through improvisation; and perhaps this somehow echoes what happens in jazz.”
Brahem began to play with jazz improvisers in the 1980s, with recorded collaborations beginning the following decade. The album Madar (1992) brought Anouar together with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and tabla player Shaukat Hussain, while Khomsa (1994) found him reworking compositions written for film and theatre with improvisers including François Couturier, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen. Thimar (1997), with Dave Holland and John Surman, marked a major breakthrough in the space between the traditions, with the participants finding a shared musical language. Blue Maqams takes this notion further. The “maqams” of the title refers to the sophisticated modal system of Arab music, perhaps rendered kind of blue by the participating improvisers.
Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette have played together on a number of ECM recordings including four albums with John Abercrombie in the Gateway trio, Kenny Wheeler’s Gnu High and Deer Wan, and George Adams’s Sound Suggestions. Brahem first encountered this mighty bass and drums team live in Zurich in the early 1990s, when they were performing with Betty Carter and Geri Allen. “This charismatic rhythm section left a very powerful impression.” Playing live with Dave Holland, on tours with the Thimar trio, was an experience Brahem cherished. “I often told Dave that his playing gave me wings as a soloist. And we spoke, too, about doing more recording. It was a matter, though, of waiting for the right material. But once I’d thought about Dave for this new album, it was very natural to think about Jack, too. It’s an immense privilege to have their participation.” Bringing the jazz drum kit and the soft-singing oud together presents specific dynamic challenges: “I was aware, when I saw that the music would need drums, that this would indeed be challenging, but I also felt that if anybody could address this creatively, it would be Jack DeJohnette, who is one of the most sensitive and subtle drummers. He can move as delicately as a cat, with such a graceful and flowing rhythm. “
Finding the right pianist for the project took longer. “For several months, I listened to a considerable number of players and had many long discussions with Manfred about the style I thought this record needed. Finally, he asked me one day to listen to a recording he’d just made with Django Bates…” [This was The Study of Touch, with Bates’s Belovèd trio with Petter Eldh and Peter Bruun, scheduled for release in November.] “I was highly impressed by Django’s mixture of virtuosic musicianship and lyricism. In the recording studio, I discovered several qualities in Django, not only his dazzling piano technique, but also his creative and inventive powers and his outstandingly strong proposals. He does some absolutely magnificent things on this recording that always bring something new and unusual to the score.”
Balancing freedom and faithfulness to the score is crucial for Anouar Brahem: “I like each piece to keep its own identity in and through written music. The musician’s role is to fit into this universe and express himself inside the framework of this identity…. It’s important for me to keep the true universe of each piece. An important part of our group work has been about this aspect – working together to find the right balance between composed and improvised music. For even in composed pieces or passages where I leave no room for personal interpretation, I like the music to sound as though it surges forth in an inspired, improvised flow.”
The music for Blue Maqams was written between 2011 and 2017, with the exception of two pieces, “Bom Dia Rio” and “Bahia”, both of which were composed in 1990, and revived for this project. Long-term Brahem listeners will be familiar with “Bahia”, a version of which can be heard on Anouar’s 1999 recording Astrakan Cafe.
Blue Maqams was recorded at New York’s Avatar Studios and produced by Manfred Eicher. It is issued as CD, vinyl double album, and digital download. Simultaneously, ECM reissues Brahem’s first ECM recording Barzakh (1990) as 180 gram audiophile LP.