In the month when ECM finally caved into pressure for their music to be available on commercial streaming platforms Tunisian Anouar Brahem released his tenth album for the German label that has made him the best known oud player in the western world. The oud is an Arabic variant on the lute, with a short neck and either 11 or 13 strings, it’s pretty much the guitar of middle eastern music, especially the more traditional varieties. As is the ECM way Brahem is joined by other musicians on the label, double bass player Dave Holland has worked with virtually everyone including Brahem himself on the excellent 1998 album Thimar. Jack de Johnette is a drummer best known for his work with Keith Jarrett and who Brahem describes as a “true feline, with a wonderfully elastic and graceful rhythm!”. Finding a piano player who would challenge the oud player to “break with his old habits” meant a change from Francois Couturier his ally of 32 years. ECM label boss Manfred Eicher introduced him to the music of Django Bates, a British multi instrumentalist and bandleader whose solo album The Study of Touch has just been released.
As with pretty well all ECM releases the sound on Blue Maqams is superb, outrageously open with silent backdrops and tone that is to die for. It helps of course that all the instruments are acoustic but nonetheless there are few labels that can equal the clarity that this one achieves. Which means that from the first note the vibrancy and spaciousness of the recording is projected into your room or headphones. The first piece, Opening Day, sets the tone with oud and bass playing together so closely you think it’s one instrument, then they are joined by cymbal and low key tom tom from de Johnette. When the piano comes in you can hear just why Brahem chose Bates, the rippling shiny notes sound like a stream with light bouncing off it. Sometimes it mimics the oud and others it harmonises with it, but all the time the pairing is delightful.
La Nuit lives up to its name with a quiet oud solo introduction that is as eloquent as any story telling, it’s then joined by the piano alone to create an intimate yet spacious conversation that is fascinating. Bates’s playing is remarkably poised, even restrained, right up to the point where the rhythm section comes in to slowly build the piece up to a climax of sorts, things rarely get too lively on this album. Such is the extent to which you get absorbed that it seems a much shorter track than its 10 minutes plus. The most intense tune is Bom Dia Rio, here Holland’s bass is at its heaviest with a lovely weight that drives the rest of the artists to whip up if not a bubbling gumpot then at least a dense melange of improvisation. All nine of the tracks are very fine indeed, there isn’t space to describe them but while there’s no shortage of range things are perhaps the most inviting when they are quiet enough for the subtlety of Brahem’s playing to shine. I’m not sure how he does it but he does it addictively well.