Anouar Brahem: Blue Maqams Review
Like a lot of jazz fans, I first heard oud player Anouar Brahem when he teamed with soprano saxophonist, bass clarinetist John Surman and double bassist Dave Holland for their 1997 album Thimar, a hauntingly beautiful and moody collection that seamlessly melded middle-eastern music with jazz. It’s territory Brahem would mine again with 1999’s Astrakan Cafe and 2008’s The Astounding Eyes Of Rita, just as he had prior to Thimar on his 1991 debut Barzakh and on Jan Garabek’s 1994 album Madar. Now he returns to it once more, and with a familiar face in tow, for Blue Maqams (CD, digital, vinyl), yet another album on which he and his compatriots create moody beauty from the marriage of jazz and the middle-east.
Left To Right, Dave Holland, Anouar Brahem, Jack DeJohnette, Django Bates
Photo © Bart Babinski / ECM Records
Recorded in May of 2017, Blue Maqams finds Anouar Brahem teaming with iconic drummer Jack DeJohnette — who’s played on such classic Miles Davis albums as Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson — along with pianist Django Bates, best known for his work with the jazz group Human Chain and his trio, Belovèd (whose new album, The Study Of Touch, will be out November 3rd). But the big get, as far as Thimar fans will be concerned, is Dave Holland, who once again takes up the double bass.
Not surprisingly, given the configuration, Blue Maqams finds Anouar Brahem and friends often playing the same kind of stark, atmospheric, and darkly moody music as he and his collaborators did on Thimar, Astrakan Cafe, and so on.
Well, sort of. On Thimar, Astrakan Cafe, The Astounding Eyes Of Rita, and Madar, Brahem teamed with a sax player or clarinetist — Surman, Barbaros Erkose, Klaus Gesing, and Garabek, respectfully — all of whom played with a slow, methodical style reminiscent of what the Wolfert Brederode Quartet’s Claudio Puntin did on their albums Currents and Post Scriptum, or Mat Walerian on his collaborations with Matthew Shipp for Live At Okuden and This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People. But not here; Blue Maqams has no horn player.
More significantly, Blue Maqams finds Anouar Brahem working with a traditional jazz drummer, as opposed to a middle-eastern percussionist. While Thimar had no drums or percussion, Ustad Shakat Hussain played the tabla, which is like a South Asian version of the bongos (if I may be so simplistic) on Madar; Lassad Hosni played the bendir (a Turkish frame drum) and the darbouka (a middle-east version of a goblet-shaped drum) on both Barzakh and Astrakan Cafe; while Khaled Yassine played those latter percussive instruments on The Astounding Eyes Of Rita.
Photo © Marco Borggreve / ECM Records
Because of this, Blue Maqams is dominated by songs where Brahem is the solo instrument over a bed of traditional piano-led jazz. Though he’s decidedly at the fore. Rather than sound like when conga player Ray Barretto added a bit of Latin flavor to the Red Garland Trio albums Manteca and Rediscovered Masters, Vol. 1, Blue Maqams is more like if Brahem collaborated with the iconic jazz trio of pianist Keith Jarrett, double bassist Gary Peacock, and — what do you know? — DeJohnette. And recently, too. The jazzy parts of Blue Maqams are decidedly closer to what Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette did on 2001’s The Out-Of-Towners, 2002’s Up For It, and 2009’s Somewhere than on the albums they recorded in 1983: Standards Vol. 1, Standards Vol. 2, and Changes (it was a busy year).
Oh, and while yes, Bates is no Jarrett — no one is — he more than holds his own here, and works well with DeJohnette and Holland.
Because Blue Maqams is so heavily infused with jazz, it’s the least moody of the jazz-infused, small ensemble albums Anouar Brahem has made. Relatively speaking, that is. “La Nuit,” the album’s second track, is stark and sparse, while “La Passante” is a dark lament. There are also times when the two moods mix, such as how “Bom Dia Rio” starts off low and slow, but carefully builds into something playfully aggressive, while both “The Recovered Road To Al-Sham” and “Unexpected Outcome” both get a bit feisty towards their respective ends.
Though, as I said, it’s all relative. To put it in terms DeJohnette (and Miles Davis) fans might understand, Blue Maqams is more Bitches Brew than it is In A Silent Way, but it’s still no Jack Johnson.
In the end, Blue Maqams may be most the conventional-sounding album in Anouar Brahem’s oeuvre, and his most traditionally jazzy album to date (again, relatively speaking). But it’s just as engaging and beautiful as his other jazz-infused, small ensemble albums.
And if it happens, like Thimar before it, to welcome jazz fans into the wonderful world that is Brahem’s oeuvre, I say welcome, you’re in for a treat.