I was in the somewhat in the dark about Anouar Brahem’s charms until I was asked to review 2006’ Le Voyage de Saha, a luminous trio date. Knew he was an oud player, knew his chops were impressive, guessed that his blend of Arab folk influences and western chamber music was valuable enough for further investigation, but had only put one ear to about half of the seven ECM dates that preceded my assignment. Man, when I got into it, I fell hard. The grace that balances Brahem’s ensemble work is a powerful force defined by a simmering fervor. That poise – a signature trait – couldn’t be anymore coercive than it is on Souvenance, a double-disc set that finds Brahem’s quartet in cahoots with a chamber orchestra. A soundtrack for animated reflection, it’s simply gorgeous.
Albums like this makes a few demands. Though it can impress even if you don’t fully focus on it, its riches multiply when you do. The muted strings of Brahem’s instrument (a five-stringed lute perfectly designed for a “music of whispers” he once said) are up front sometimes, but not always. They’re forever on the hunt, finding ways to blend in with the piano or bass clarinet, and often putting accented foreground moves on the hushed drones and swirls of the orchestra. Brahem’s not a string soloist in the way of, let’s say, John McLaughlin or Carlos Santana. His oud’s persona has more to do with tiny phrases that manage to dodge the spotlight even while standing front and center. Beguiling to say the least – especially when his work on “Improbable Day” and the album’s title cut is so fetching in its ardor.
This is the first time the leader has written for strings, and ultimately it’s the equilibrium of the charts that gives the music such zest. Brahem knows how to set moods, especially when it comes to shadowy scenes that exude rumination. The opening moments of “Souvenance” make their mark with an ominous glow. Conductor Pietro Mianiti guides his charges gently, using Brahem’s designs in a way that touts splendor. In moves that conjure Gil Evans’ muted use of color, the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana comes and goes as needed, highlighting passages and disappearing into the ether. As bassist Björn Meyer puts a heartbeat to “Youssef’s Song,” they bring surprisingly rich hues to what’s formally a pastel vibe.
In press notes, Brahem speaks about reacting to the 2011 insurrections around the region of his homeland, and there are flashes of agitation that surface in the music to assure a dynamic character. But Souvenance is ultimately a program of delicacies, each piece yet another chance to hear how a series of very substantial hymns can pick up more power by embracing their ethereal complexion.