Anouar Brahem first heard jazz when he was studying the oud at the National Conservatory in Tunis in the 1970s. He was astonished that a youthful music of humble origins had evolved in a matter of decades into an art of extraordinary sophistication, through successive waves of innovation; Arabic music struck him as ‘caught in some sort of conformist conservatism in comparison’. He wanted to meld the traditions of the oud with other influences, and to create a vernacular modernism, like the jazz musicians he admired.
He wasn’t alone. An older generation of oud players, notably the Iraqi virtuoso Munir Bashir, had distinguished themselves as solo performers, liberating the oud from its traditional role as an accompaniment for singers. And Brahem’s contemporaries – he was born in 1957, a year after Tunisia won independence – were also keen to experiment with Western styles, from bebop to psychedelia. Still, Brahem's synthesis of Arabic music, jazz and classical music stands out for its poetry and grace; it never falls into the self-consciousness or kitsch of Arab 'fusion’.
Brahem's latest album, Blue Maqams, his 13th, features a quartet: Brahem on oud; the British pianist Django Bates; and the bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who have been playing together since they were in Miles Davis's electric band of the late 1960s (when Davis’s music had a pronounced Andalusian or ‘Moorish’ tinge). The band went into Avatar Studios in New York, in May, without having played together live, or even rehearsed. ‘I like this moment of fragility,’ Brahem says, ‘of discovery and freshness, which you can lose if you know the music too well.'
He wrote the music for piano first, later adding parts for bass, drums and, finally, the oud. In a recent interview on France Culture, he confessed that, when he composes, ‘I often have difficulty finding a place for my instrument.’ This struggle to find a place for himself makes itself felt in his solos, which have a shy audacity even in their moments of rapture. Sometimes you can hear Brahem softly humming – a ‘reminiscence’, he says, of the ‘song that's essential to traditional Arabic music’.
Maqams are melodic modes, based on a scale of seven notes, which supply Arabic composition and improvisation with its structural foundation. Brahem learned the maqams from Ali Sriti at the conservatory in Tunis. He calls them 'blue' because he has interwoven them with jazz instruments and improvisation. But I suspect that he's also paying homage to the blue of the Maghreb: the Mediterranean Sea, the tile work and the windowpanes of North Africa. And the way Brahem makes his oud sing, it could be an ancient cousin of the ‘cry’ of the blues.
'Opening Day’, the first track, begins with an aria of sorts, by Brahem. The other members of the band enter one by one: low, heart-beat notes on the bass; a shiver of cymbals; and finally the piano, echoing the oud’s phrases. 'There were other pieces that seemed more important to me,' Brahem says, 'but this one had a spirit of invitation.' The next eight tracks explore a succession of atmospheres, from 'La Passante’, an ethereal duet for Brahem and Bates, to the dirge-like march of 'Persepolis's Mirage', to the racing motion of the album's 11-minute finale, 'Unexpected Outcome'. Sometimes we are listening to the full quartet, at others to a trio, a duet, or simply to Brahem, playing in the Arabic tradition of solo improvisation known as taqsim.
Brahem's wife told him that Blue Maqams is at once the most traditional, and the most modern, of his albums. It's seldom clear what’s traditional and what modern in Brahem's music, because it constantly wanders between – and thereby dissolves – these reference points. It's a sensibility he shares with the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, to whom he dedicated his 2009 album The Astounding Eyes of Rita. Like Darwish's 'lyric epic', Brahem's music suggests that there is nothing more modern than a tradition that has been given new life. An embrace of the new is also the road home for an improvisatory tradition that has drifted astray from its exploratory roots. (The title of one track, 'The recovered road to al-Sham’, an allusion to Syria, suggests that innovation and freedom might heal other forms of exile.) The mood throughout Blue Maqams is one of restless transformation and searching, as the music's different elements combine to form a new alloy that floats free of its hybrid origins, but never forgets them. You might call it Arab jazz, if jazz weren't already a little bit Arab, the maqams already blue. Better, perhaps, just to call it the music of Anouar Brahem.