Anouar Brahem's oud playing is expressive, entrancing and beautiful. It's so moving and anthemic it's hard to believe any listener wouldn't be frequently overwhelmed by Brahem's brilliance. While one can debate whether Brahem's music should be considered jazz or world or some hybrid of the two, there's no denying the songs on Astrakan Cafe rank among the most lyrical and elegant in any genre. Brahem blends elements of traditional Arab and Islamic religious and popular music with just a slight nod to the American improvising tradition. His spiraling passages and energetic forays reflect some jazz influence, but the overall tone and sound of the work is more North African and Eastern than Western.
Barbaros Erkose, on clarinet, and Lassad Hosni, on percussive instruments bendir and darbouka, prove equally exciting players. The usual splendid ECM engineering and production ensure a rich, rippling trio sound that fully accents the quality of Brahem's oud flights, Erkose's clarinet answers and Hosni's delicate alternating between challenging and exemplifying the duo's statements. The song menu shifts from serious recountings of vintage compositions to film soundtrack pieces, joyous exchanges and somber, probing exchanges. This is Anouar Brahem's sixth date for ECM; here's wishing that he'll get many more chances to display his amazing abilities for international audiences.