The fear of repetition is probably what underpins Anouar Brahem’s entire recording career. “C’est ma hantise” (It’s my worst nightmare) said the Tunisian-born oud player in a recent interview. Since his début for the Munich-based ECM record label in 1991, the musician has performed in solo or shared the studio with a different formation on every record – except on Le Pas du Chat Noir (2002) and Le Voyage de Sahar (2006), both with Francois Couturier (piano) and Jean Louis Matinier (accordion).

Likewise, he has played with clarinet player Barbaros Erköse, bass clarinet player John Surman or double bass player Dave Holland among many others in duo, trio, quartet or small formations blending Arab classical music with traditional folk and jazz. He has scored for cinema and even ventured into orchestration in his last record Souvenance. In other words, “change is the only constant” in Anouar Brahem’s discography: every new formation means different dynamics, colours and textures.

Recorded in New York in May 2017 and released on the ECM record label on 13 October 2017 last, Blue Maqams features a brand new ensemble. Anouar Brahem on the oud, legendary musicians Dave Holland on double bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. At the suggestion of label owner Manfred Eicher, British jazz composer Django Bates on piano completes the line-up.

Anouar Brahem - Blue-Maqams (2017)
Anouar Brahem – Blue-Maqams (2017)

For instrumental reasons perhaps (the colour palette on the cover artwork is also similar), Blue Maqams somewhat feels like a follow up to the groundbreaking Thimar album (1998) which saw Anouar Brahem partake in a bewitching conversation with John Surman (bass clarinet and saxophone) and Dave Holland (double bass). The two Western jazz musicians had very little background in Middle-Eastern musical forms, yet, the resulting record turned into a beautifully constructed contemporary fusion of improvised jazz and Arabic modal themes anchored around the riveting bass lines of Dave Holland.

Maqam refers to the system of scales, melodic modes and ornamentation techniques used in Arabic music – the keystone of Anouar Brahem’s musical world. But in an effort to escape the sometimes “conformist conservatism” of centuries old Arabic traditions, Anouar Brahem has always been naturally drawn towards jazz – a relatively young tradition “associated with ideas of transgression and freedom” in his own words. Discovering the music of John McLaughlin and his Shakti formation, then moving to Paris in the early 1980s to meet musician from other backgrounds brought Anouar Brahem closer to the jazz aesthetics, culminating in a recording session with Jan Garbarek in 1992.

There lies perhaps the meaning of the word Blue, wonderfully associated here with Maqams in the album title. It somewhat relates to the blue notes found in blues and jazz. And then, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland share a filiation with Miles Davis, having both participated in the Bitches Brew sessions of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Dave Holland came to my mind right away. Ever since I met him twenty years ago to make my album Thimar with him and John Surman, I’ve let it be known that I would like to record with him again […] I told him that playing with him “had given me wings”. Anouar Brahem

All tracks were composed by Anouar Brahem and there is of course plenty of room for improvisation. Most were composed in the last ten years, but the quartet also revisits two older compositions dating back to the 1990s, including the standout “Bahia” originally recorded on Madar as a solo number.

The format is beautifully exposed on “Opening Day”, the first track of the album, with an introduction of the theme on solo oud, with double bass and drums quickly finding the groove. The piano arrives last to start a dialogue with the oud. Dave Holland often follows the oud very closely at the start of the songs, but “The Recovered Road to Al-Sham” starts with a piano-based ground bass in place of the oud and over which Django Bates elaborates beautifully. “La Passante” is entirely piano-led too, with the oud only coming in halfway.

Anouar Brahem’s voice can also be heard on several tracks, either singing the melody alongside the oud or as “backing vocals” on the superb closing track “Unexpected Outcome”. Supremely recorded and one of the rare albums on the ECM label to be granted a Vinyl release, Blue Maqams is an exceptional record, the epitome of a perfect stylistic and instrumental balance between four master musicians in full flight.