If I were to say to you, “world music”, you might begin to imagine some typical cross-pollination of ethnic beats and Western rock, maybe with a didgeridoo droning along for good measure. The word “jazz” also has certain immediate connotations. Although an intensely varied genre, some swingin’ be-bop might pop into your brain, or maybe Ella singing some scat. Anouar Brahem challenges all of these associations. It would be best to think of him as an artist on a jazz label, rather than as a jazz musician; as a worldly musician, rather than one who plays world music. Born in Tunisia in 1957, he studied oud playing in his homeland before venturing to Paris in the early 1980s. Along the way, he transformed the traditional melodies and styles of his native country into an improvisational music that worked well when played in a jazz context. Essentially, Brahem invented his own style.
ECM has been his label throughout his recording career, beginning with Barzakh in 1991 and continuing through Le Voyage de Sahar, his newest release and his seventh album. During those fifteen years, Brahem’s music has pursued a slow evolution, the flavors of Tunisia gradually distilled into an approach all his own. Whereas that earliest recording, augmented only sparingly by violin and percussion, could have served as a soundtrack to a sun-scorched sojourn across the sprawling dunes, this latest album is less specifically attached to the sounds of any one region or style. Although Anouar apparently wished to invoke the Sahara through these recordings, he does one better by creating a set of pieces that allude to a world of sounds.
Partly, this is nurtured by the unusual instrumentation on Le Voyage de Sahar. Brahem retained the two other members of his trio from 2002’s Le Pas du Chat Noir, the beautiful and critically lauded album that brought him into greater public consciousness. Jean-Louis Matinier plays accordion and François Couturier is on piano, while Brahem leads the trio on his oud, an eleven-stringed Arabic cousin of the European lute. Matinier’s playing, unsurprisingly, most often echoes the sounds of either France or Argentina, although the versatility of his technique is astounding, and there are times when you’ll swear you’re hearing a woodwind instead of the air moving through the bellows of his accordion. Couturier, likewise, molds his piano playing to the mood and feel of each particular track. “Halfaouine” is pensively Chopin-like, for instance, while his left-hand comping on the title track sets up a low, meditative hum for the song’s spare and softly stuttering rhythmic vamps. When he later cuts into a sharp and clear procession of notes, this sort-of solo lifts the track to beautiful new heights. But it is Matinier who steals the show on the Spanish-tinged “Zarabanda”, with accordion playing that is more mellifluous and crystalline than I had imagined could possibly come from that instrument. Despite Anouar Brahem’s name appearing alone on the CD cover, this album is clearly a collaborative effort. Of course, the leader does take the lead on many occasions, as in the opening to “Eté Andalous” and the first half of “Córdoba”. In each case, Brahem subtly weaves his solos in and around his sidemen’s support, fiding some Arabic tones at times, but mostly following his restless bliss.
Le Voyage de Sahar is an assured and subtle work. While less melodically adventurous than Chat Noir, Sahar is Brahem’s most mature release. Like everything recorded on the ECM label, the sound is a bit austere, although perhaps global warming has had its effect on the production work of Manfred Eicher, because the chill is less pronounced than ever before. The sound remains spacious, but appropriately warm for an album meant to evoke the desert of Northern Africa and which, instead, evokes no one place, no one genre, and no one time. A gorgeous album, Le Voyage de Sahar simply is.