Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem performs for a jazz audience (and frequently works with pianist François Couturier). But his previous music is neither jazzy nor collaborative; he’s a solo artist, his sidemen sympathetic but unquestionably subordinate. No more. The stunning Blue Maqams groups Brahem with a full jazz rhythm section. Though he remains the leader, he’s part of an integrated quartet—first among equals.
Not immaterial: Brahem’s band includes some of the world’s most acclaimed musicians. Nobody hires pianist Django Bates, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette to deliver unobtrusive chords and accents. Holland vamps and fills conspicuously on tunes like “La Nuit,” and almost in counterpoint to Brahem’s improvisation on the incantatory “Bahia.” Bates creates a delicacy on his intro to “La Passante,” but it quickly becomes the majority of the tune, with Brahem the light-fingered accompanist. And then there’s DeJohnette. His work on toms and kick (“Opening Day,” “Persepolis’s Mirage”) echoes the subliminal percussion on many Brahem records (e.g., 2000’s Astrakan Café). But atop that, his omnipresent, clacking ride cymbal announces his presence as a fanfare.
The oud player’s trancelike compositions aren’t a terrific departure. A title like “The Recovered Road to Al-Sham” signals a Middle Eastern flavor before its slowly revolving piano line gives way to stark Brahem figures. Likewise, “Blue Maqams” hides its Arabic modal structures between haunting ensemble statements. It’s those statements (and their counterparts) that distinguish themselves, culminating in the arresting “Bom Dia Rio”—oddly, one of two pieces not composed specifically for this album. Brahem and Bates develop riffs, Holland solos and DeJohnette finally unleashes his hefty snare sounds.
The quality of Blue Maqams isn’t remarkable in the uniformly excellent Brahem catalog. But it’s refreshing to hear him work with peers, and not with sidemen.