Friday, November 06, 2009

Brahem’s Oud: The Astounding Eyes of Rita

The Astounding Eyes of Rita
By Anouar Brahem
ECM Records 2075

The oud and its musical forefather, the lute, are thought to date back five millenniums. By some accounts, it was invented by Adam’s grandson Lamech. Yet in a comparatively short period of time, Tunisian musician Anouar Brahem has liberated the ancient oud from its conventional role accompanying vocalists, redefining it as the lead instrumental voice in a series of recordings that combine improvised jazz, western chamber music, and traditional Middle Eastern musical forms. In a bit of departure from recent prior releases, the influence of Arab classical styles is much more pronounced on Brahem’s latest offering, The Astounding Eyes of Rita.

If anything, the constitution of Brahem’s new quartet would suggest a slight tilt towards jazz idioms, given the presence of German bass clarinetist Klaus Gessing, recently heard on Norma Winstone’s Distances (one of the best CDs of 2008) and Swedish bassist Björn Meyer, a veteran of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, the ultramodern jazz-trance ensemble. However, while the leader still keeps one foot firmly planted in jazz territory, the blend of his oud and Lebanese percussionist Khaled Yassine’s darbouka drum create a distinctly Eastern sound.

Brahem establishes the mysterious atmosphere from the beginning with “The Lover of Beirut,” a perfect example of the dreamily languid mood created by the deep tones of Gessing’s bass clarinet and the subtle punctuations of the leader’s oud. The following “Dances with Waves” is much more melodic, up-tempo, and jazz-oriented, featuring a legitimately swinging oud solo. The richly textured “Stopover at Djibouti” also boasts two truly rousing jazz solos from Brahem and Gessing. Catchy and intriguing, it is a real standout track that seems to evolve dramatically during each new listening.

The mood then shifts back to stately melancholy with the elegiac title track, inspired by the work of the controversial Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. (Known for his militant opposition to the state of Israel, Darwish had been active in the PLO, but did criticize the factionalism of the Palestinian Authority late in his life.) It is certainly stirring music even if Darwish, to whom the CD is dedicated, is an understandably problematic figure for many.

With “Al Birwa” Brahem again pens a soothing melody that serves as a vehicle for some remarkable playing. Unlike his previous recording, Brahem eschewed the piano while composing, developing Eyes’s selections directly on the oud. The resulting compositions indeed sound pitch-perfect arranged for his rather unusual instrumentation.

Listening to the evocative Eyes summons images of Tunisian cafes and Mediterranean marketplaces. Often transfixing and even transformative, it has a genuinely distinctive sound that will seduce listeners with its inspired marriage of elegant old world ambiance and the eloquence of jazz expression.