Reviews December 5, 2017
Blue Maqams

I am not a morning person. When I wake up, I like to take things slowly, stretch, do a little yoga, ease into the day. I am always faced with a stack of CDs I have yet to listen to, but much of the music is simply too energetic to suit my morning mood. So it’s always a pleasure when I find music perfectly suited to that moment of gradual awakening. Of all the albums I’ve heard in 2017, Anouar Brahem’s Blue Maqams stands out as the most beautiful, engaging, peaceful and perfect musical accompaniment to matinal transition I’ve found in a long time. Many of my days in this tumultuous year have begun with its serene, virtuosic magic.

Brahem is one of a kind, a Tunisian oud master trained in the demanding rigors of traditional Arabic art music, but also wide open to the music of the broader world. The maqam in this album’s title refers to the complex system of musical modes that players of Arabic music must negotiate. The music calls for improvisation, but a very structured form of it, requiring deep understanding of the conventions governing each maqam. While Brahem was studying this art in the 1970s, he also became fascinated with a music that takes a freer approach to improvisation: jazz. Brahem never exactly aspired to become a jazz musician himself, but as a young man in Paris in 1990, he met ECM’s Manfred Eicher, and began in unique career of cross-genre collaborations that has yielded a series of remarkable recordings, Blue Maqams being the 11th.

Brahem has often explored the interplay possibilities between oud and piano, and here he works with a new foil at the keyboard, British composer and multi-instrumentalist Django Bates. A number of these nine pieces feature delicate interplay between these two sonorities, at times moving together in unison lockstep, and at times veering into eloquent dialogue. Brahem wanted to support these conversations with a strong but sensitive jazz rhythm section, and he could hardly have done better than Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Holland’s trademark warm, fat tone is a sublime pleasure in any context, but here it especially well suited to the quiet, though at times deeply swinging, spaces that Brahem inhabits. In the album notes, Brahem notes that when he first played with Holland, some years back, the experience “gave me wings.” He spreads those wings here, as both players seem perfectly attuned to each others’ moods and instincts.

DeJohnette too has the kind of supple virtuosity this project demands. He can fill out a groove with fiercely complex rhythms, and yet keep the feel as gentle as a breeze blowing through rushes. Speaking of fierce, Brahem reports “fierce discussions” among the musicians over the issue of composition versus improvisation. Holland and DeJohnette, of course, are champions of totally improvised music, but Brahem remains loyal to the compositional discipline of his first art, and here seeks to find a new level of balance between written and invented notes.

Many of these pieces revolve around a central melodic figure, at times played in unison by the oud, bass and/or piano, and at times held down by one player while other embellish around it. This feels true to the nature of Arabic music, where such figures often provide a rhythmic backbone to sections of improvisation. At the same time, the figures Braham creates are imbued with swing, and not only the swing of jazz. “Bom Dia Rio,” with its inflections of samba, offers a particularly thrilling example, blooming into a flurry of improvising from the oud and piano before they rejoin the bass in a deeply satisfying recapitulation.

On “La Nuit,” Bates’ piano establishes the central figure and it comes and goes as the piece unfolds, returning at the end with restless urgency, but also the familiarity of an old friend. “Blue Maqams” proceeds with slow momentum, not a consistent groove, and it opens up in the middle for Brahem’s unaccompanied improvisation, essentially the Arabic art of taqsim, something the oudist has generally avoided in his collaborative works, but here allows himself to incorporate, with wonderful grace and elegance. There is ultimately a groove here, but it emerges only in the final minutes of a nearly nine-minute piece.

The repeating figures in so many of these pieces can convey the feeling of chant. There is a kind of ritual serenity in the performances. Blue Maqams overflows with rhythmic and melodic complexity, yet with its fidelity to these cycling figures, it also captures the simplicity of folk music. This album is a balm, but also a challenge to the imagination. With its richness of expression, and its dedication to these through-line rhythmic and melodic anchors, Blue Maqams seems to illuminate a path forward through uncertainty, and what better way to face one’s day, or indeed, one’s life?