I can distinctly remember the first time I heard the playing of Anouar Brahem, because the circumstances were so cinematically odd. As a wanderlust-struck student, sitting outside a cheap café in Tangier, Morocco – a day after completing a three-week sponsored hitchhike from London – a sketchy seeming local smoking discarded butts struck up a rapport. Hearing I was enthusiastic about music he insisted on taking me to a nearby pirate CD shop, and demanded the owner put on his favourite album.
The sounds which spiraled from the speakers were magical – a spellbinding, spiritual swirl of oud, woodwind and percussion unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I bought the album on the spot, for less than a single US dollar. It was called Madar and co-credited to Norwegian crossover saxophone star Jan Garbarek, Pakistani tabla maestro Ustad Shaukat Hussain – and Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem. That moment was to kickstart a lifelong love of the latter’s instrument – and the record label which facilitates and fuels such fascinating fusions, ECM.
Today – May 18, 2018 – marks the 20th birthday of Thimar, arguably the most enduring recording of Brahem’s glittering, three-decade international career. Brazenly paired alongside two distinguished English jazzmen – bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist/clarinetist John Surman – Brahem was forced to rethink his relationship to the instrument that brought him fame and notoriety, a “transcultural” conceit which best exemplifies the oud player’s restless mission to transplant Arabic classical music traditions into an international, improvisational context.
Despite the shared billing, this is completely Brahem’s trip, initiating the project and penning nine of Thimar’s 11 tunes. His sparse, maqam themes offering a skeleton frame for collective sound-scaping of the most intuitive kind: Holland’s low growls and Surman’s plaintive cries a sympathetic sonic foil to the oud’s meditative meandering. Tellingly, Brahem’s is the last voice to be heard, the oud only appearing half-way through the eight-minute opener Badhra.
Brahem would record many equally atmospheric sessions for ECM, often shaded by the dense harmonies of polyphonic instrumentation – including multiple appearances from the French accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and his compatriot, pianist François Couturier. But there’s something special about the sparseness of Thimar, democratically coloured by three largely monophonic instruments, like three wise men in a conversation – or in the case of frenzied Uns, a heated debate. Because this is music to think to, not think about – sounds which fire up the synapses and set memories reeling into motion.
Tellingly, Brahem would revive Thimar’s textural ebb and flow with last year’s universally hailed Blue Maqams, an 11th recording for ECM which served as a reunion with Holland for the first time in two decades years – alongside legendary American jazz drummer Jack Dejohnette and British pianist Django Bates – and marked his jazziest release to date.