Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams (ECM)

Tunisian oud prodigy brings together fellow outstanding players to deliver one of this year's strongest jazz albums

Released Oct 13th, 2017 via ECM Records / By Norman Miller
Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams (ECM) Anouar Brahem is the Tunisian master of the oud – one of the world's oldest stringed instruments, and considered by many to be Arab music's 'King of Instruments'. And having reached his half century this year, he remains peerless at integrating the oud with more familiar instruments.

Matters are helped on new album Blue Maqams by Brahem's choice of musicians. Since beginning recording with ECM in 1989, he's worked with A-listers including Jan Garbarek and John Surman, as well as repeat collaborators of the stature of drummer Jack DeJohnette and double bass guru Dave Holland. Here, he finds another masterful collaborator in pianist Django Bates – a player who, remarkably, Brahem says he'd never heard until happy chance brought him into the fold.

With almost all the nine tracks coming in around the 7-8 minute mark, there's room for each of the players to stretch. But it is Bates' contribution that often grips the attention strongest - even when on the West Coast groove of Bom Dia Rio his piano locks into a breathless rhythmic tussle with pulsing bass and skittish drums.

On Persepolis's Mirage, Bates provides a bedrock hypnotic dark repetitive rhythm round which Brahem's oud weaves a loosely sensuous dance, before a mesmeric swinging piano riff changes the mood brilliantly.

There's an almost Debussy-like feel to the piano that leads the way through the dreamily abstract La Passante, with further classical flourishes on the beautifully considered introductory piano section on The Recovered Road To Al-Sham – which concludes with some breathtaking interplay with Holland's bass.

There are also gorgeously delineated melodic piano lines on the outstanding La Nuit as it moves from sparse dissonance to rippling muscularity, while Bates' playing on the closing Unexpected Outcome is the equal of Keith Jarrett at his best.

Brahem brings flamenco nods to some of his playing here too, as well as a confidence to adopt a delicate approach when needed on a 77-minute set that may just be the best jazz album of the year.