Anouar Brahem, wrote Wolfgang Sandner in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin, "has gone much further than many jazz musicians in energetically seeking out new music." The statement can't be contested, but the oud player from Tunisia has the unusual distinction of being both a progressive musician and a traditionalist in the deepest sense. In his homeland, Brahem has been credited with "restoring the sovereignty of the oud", reclaiming it as a solo instrument in Arab classical music, rescuing it from mere accompanist chores. Simultaneously he has been acclaimed, both within Tunisia's boundaries and beyond them, as an innovator, pioneering very many transcultural projects - of which the appealing Thimar is the latest. It is precisely because Brahem is so strongly-rooted in his own culture that he can risk such endeavours. There is no "fusion" of traditions on Thimar (Arabic for "fruits") but rather a coming together of three very distinctive improvisors, who sacrifice none of their individuality in the search for common ground. Arab classical music and jazz are the reference points here, but Anouar Brahem, John Surman and Dave Holland meet as improvisors not limited by genre definitions.
Brahem studied for many years as a disciple of oud master Ali Sriti in his native Tunis before seeking out points of congruence with other cultures, a search that intensified during his years in Paris (1981-85). He was, however, first heard on disc with an all-Tunisian trio on Barzakh in 1991. This was followed by the collaboration with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the late Pakistani tabla master Shaukat Hussain on Madar and by an album reworking, with an international cast, music Brahem had written for the Tunisian cinema. On Khonsa his partners were Tunisian violinist Bechir Selmi, Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson, Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen, and three musicians from France - accordionist Richard Galliano, keyboardist François Couturier, and saxophonist Jean Marc Larché. "Khomsa is one of the great records of the year," England's The Guardian enthused. "Brahem is at the forefront of jazz because he is far beyond it..."Although Dave Holland and John Surman both contribute compositional material to Thimar, most of the writing stems from Brahem's pen. Two of the pieces were written originally for the Musical Ensemble of Tunis, two more for the Tunisian theatre, and one originated as a sketch for the Khomsa ensemble. The majority of the music, however, was prepared specifically for the Thimar session. Performing it was a considerable challenge even for vastly-experienced veterans Surman and Holland.
Dave Holland: "I hadn't known what to expect. Anouar gave us a pile of music the day before the session. There were no bar lines - and of course there were no chords, because that's not a reference point in this music. But there were these complex melodies, and one phrase might have seven beats in it, and another phrase nine. And when John and I started to play this, at first we were stumbling all over ourselves. But we persevered, put some pencil marks on the music, talked about how to approach the structures... At the session, things started to fall into place, as they so often do. The moment impresses itself upon you, and you rise to the occasion. Bringing these traditions together is by no means simple, and I think what we ended up with is music that has real value." It is also music that seems as natural as breathing, far removed from the stilted jazz-meets-the-world projects that litter the discographies.
In terms of "bringing the traditions together", it is interesting that recent musicological studies are beginning to point to the Middle East as a source for jazz that may predate the West African connection. Some scholars now make the case, hypothetical of course, that the African component of early jazz was itself a synthesis, already coloured by centuries of contact with Islamic culture. If true, this would make Brahem's quest for a wider musical context also a matter of reintegration, of recognising something in jazz that is already at the core of his own music.As was the case with Kenny Wheeler's Angel Song, the drummerless music of Thimar places special responsibilities on Dave Holland to shoulder most of the rhythm duties. The demands seem to bring forth some of his finest playing. "With John and Anouar, although my main function was to be accompanist and rhythm player, I felt I was getting support from both of them because of their ability to maintain a sense of rhythm independently..."
The musical context provided by Thimar is an unusual one for both Holland and Surman, but the interests of the two British musicians have always been broader than ”mere” jazz. Few know that in the 1960s Surman, now regarded as the quintessentially English player, made quite extensive studies of Indian music and, of course, improvising from a modal base is by no means a foreign concept for him. Yet while ready to give to the music on Thimar, and to work within Anouar’s framework, Surman also clearly demarcates his own space. The implications of Coltrane’s soprano playing may have led many saxophonists to dabble in quasi-orientalisms, but Surman’s sense of melody derives consciously from his own roots. Significantly, his compositional contribution to the disc is entitled ”Kernow” - old English for ”Cornwall”.
Dave Holland's ability to adjust so quickly to the rhythmic demands of Arab music must be in part attributable to his own experiments with irregular meters. This has been one of the hallmarks of his writing for more than 30 years, and he's suggested his interest in unorthodox time signatures may have had its genesis in his early studies of Bartók (whose indebtedness to Arab music - in the Piano Suite, the Second String Quartet and more - is a matter of historical record...) Holland could also be said to have a philosophical connection to Brahem’s world. The bassist gave notice of his interest in Sufi literature as long ago as 1972, when he titled his first album as a leader, Conference Of The Birds, after Fariduddin Attar’s 13th century epic poem of the same name. Brahem’s own interest in Sufi texts is manifested in the concluding ”Hulmu Rabia”(”Rabia’s Dream”), inspired by the visionary verse of Rabia of Basra (714-801 A.D.), the first female mystic of Islam.
Holland was invited into the session after producer Manfred Eicher played Brahem Angel Song. Brahem: "I listened to that album following the bass. It's like the heartbeat of the music. And Dave's sound is so beautiful. Powerful, but rounded, not at all aggressive or harsh."The oud player first became aware of John Surman's music with the release of the solo album Road to Saint Ives in 1990. "This extraordinary sense of melody that John has...I liked that so much. It touched me very deeply. Since then, I've listened to everything he's done." In 1994, Surman and Brahem toured Japan together but separately, playing opposite each other in concerts to mark ECM's 25th anniversary. "We got to know each other and got along well and talked then about making a record one day. His playing on all his instruments is exceptional, but I especially like the blending of the bass clarinet and the oud. The wood in the sound makes it a very satisfying combination, I think.
"I was really impressed with the engagement of both Dave and John in the making of this album. Collaborations of this kind can be quite...dangerous. Sometimes musicians of different cultures meet only superficially. But they were both concerned to get to the essence of the music."
The Anouar Brahem/John Surman/Dave Holland trio makes its live debut at the ECM New Series Festival in Badenweiler, Germany, at the end of May. In October the trio undertakes a tour through central Europe with concerts at major venues in France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.Meanwhile Brahem's reputation as a composer of film music continues to grow. It has been boosted in Germany with the revival of Moufida Tlatlis's Palast des Schweigens, previously listed by Time magazine as one of the ten best films of 1994. Brahem's score is an important component of this "breathtakingly beautiful film" (Süddeutsche Zeitung), and a new audience is now discovering it.