Anouar Brahem – Souvenance (ECM)

Brahem, SouvenanceThis fragile sound of nascent hope is a unique piece of ambient jazz with an exotic edge, and is one of the major discoveries of 2015 for me.

4.5 Stars
Disc 1: 6 tracks / 52 mins.
Disc 2: 5 tracks / 37 mins.

When this one appeared through my door, I looked at the personnel on the back and felt the excitement rise. Brahem is an oud player, so I awaited warm, succulent string tones. Supporting him is François Couturier on piano, Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and Björn Meyer on bass. Backing them all is the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. So it sounded soft, balmy and exotic.

But after playing the first disc, my reaction was, “Is that it?” It hadn’t really got going and there was hardly anything to it.

Many, many plays later, Souvenance has become my current favourite – and I have several very fine discs (including Neal Morse Band and a Climax Blues Band triple set) on my reviewing list at the moment.

Tunisian Brahem writes in the liner notes about living through the Arab Spring, “Extraordinary events had suddenly shaken the daily lives of millions of people. We were propelled toward the unknown, with immense fears, joys and hopes. What was happening was beyond our imagining. It took a long time before I was able to write this music.” He claims that these events did not directly shape the music, but the indirect effect is clear.  It has been six years since his previous release and even when writing this work, the pieces only received names retrospectively. This sense of uncertainty is what comes across, particularly in the first disc, which is why it initially seemed so vacuous.

Now, it seems very different: themes are clearly stated, but come and go, moving to the background and then up front again; all dappled with fragments of sound – a bass rumble here, a oud string picked there; a musical flag waving – colours moving, but not going anywhere. I find myself almost holding my breath. Piano lines are central to this collection, at times more than Brahem himself, but everyone plays their part.

The second disc is the one I play most. Its opening piece “January” is perhaps the most substantial of all the tracks. It begins a bit like Tubular Bells, thanks to an arpeggiated piano riff, and picks up several further tunelets and everyone seems to have a go at picking up the themes.

Following it, “Like a Dream” similarly enjoys a definite structure, the bass clarinet and piano working together like a more conventional chilled jazz track.The sound is so open that there is rarely a need for the orchestra, but it does come in like a fifth instrument a few times to add a little more variety to the colour.

The closest musical image I can conjure is Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden – a disjointed, uncommercial release that bewitches and reels me in with emotion above melody, except that Brahem’s work is more graceful and hypnotic. A better reference point is probably the more minimalist end of Jeff Johnson’s works.

Here is “January” (best heard before being seen):” If you do not find yourself entranced, it may be that you need to hear the whole disc.

It is only a sense of objective caution that prevents me from giving this five stars, but if you judge it on the constant repeat plays I give it and the huge place it has earmed in my affections, it deserves top marks.

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