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Released on the occasion of Anouar Brahems 60th birthday, Blue Maqams offers many reasons to celebrate. Recorded in New Yorks Avatar Studios in May 2017 and produced by Manfred Eicher, it brings the Tunisian oud master together with three brilliant improvisers: the Maqams of the title refers to the Arabic modal music system, rendered kind of blue by the jazz players. For Anouar Brahem and Dave Holland the album marks a reunion: they first collaborated 20 years ago on the very widely-acclaimed Thimar album. Brahem meets Jack DeJohnette for the first time here, but Holland and DeJohnette have been frequent musical partners over the last half-century beginning with ground-breaking work with Miles Davis their collaborations are legendary. British pianist Django Bates also rises superbly to the challenge of Brahems compositions. And Anouar in turn is inspired to some of his most outgoing playing.
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The album has a shape all its own, a storytelling arc that swoops up the listener on a sonic journey; it really seems to be meant to be heard in its entirety. It’s a fairly low key sojourn, but it’s not without its dramatic moments, at least in contrast to its constant return to a contemplative center.
Even though Maqams bears no overt resemblance to it, when I first heard it, I was first reminded of In a Silent Way, not so much for content but in the way both albums wash over the listener, enveloping them in a specific environment, not unlike immersing oneself in a great ocean of spacious sounds, one that, like the sound of the ocean, can be put on repeat without tiring of it. And there is a connection between these two fine albums: they both have Dave Holland on bass. Holland is like a rock in both settings, laying down the groove and stating the time when necessary, floating when appropriate. De Johnette, a powerhouse drummer, opts to sit in the background for the most part here, sometimes sitting out altogether, and only showing his formidable creativity and chops in a couple key places.
Pianist Django Bates shows particular discipline in the way he interacts with Brahem’s passionate, sensual, yet understated oud. There is not a note that doesn’t belong- the interaction is a precise give and take, sometimes almost call and response, but the two never get in the way of one another. I for one can’t wait to hear Django’s first ECM release as leader.
Of course there are „tunes“ on here, recognizable melodies, tempos and time signatures that one can eventually differentiate from one another. Yet the overall sense, even after many listenings, is of a complete whole, combined with a luxurious use of silence and a disciplined intention to only play what is absolutely called for. With music this open, these artists achieve a miraculous balance of freedom and form.
I can’t recommend this album highly enough. And I honestly can’t remember the last time I found something so inherently listenable that I just put it on repeat while hanging out at home. Yet putting one’s entire concentration on the music yields vast rewards. It is that good after all!