Anouar Brahem - oud
François Couturier - p
Jean-Louis Matinier - acc
It's only last January that I first heard Anouar Brahem. A friend played Astrakhan Café and I immediately loved it. Its lyrical melodies, intimate atmosphere, gently dancing rhythms and seeming simplicity are so seductive that it almost feels like it should be a guilty pleasure. Like the Astrakhan Café trio, that of Brahem, François Couturier and Jean-Louis Matinier evokes Arabic aristocracy and scented gardens and reflects how Arabic architecture is ornate on the micro-level but clean and capacious on a larger scale. The Alhambra in its heyday came to mind.
The presence of two harmonic instruments was handled in such a way that they collectively opened up space, rather than forced each other to jostle for position: the trio regularly became a duo or a solo and François Couturier deftly manipulated delicate sound masses and rippling textures and used florid appogiatura to reproduce a Middle-Eastern sound, while Matinier regularly accompanied the oud with only a barely audible drone. The result was a sublime and intimate hush: despite their timbral differences, the three instrumental voices melted into one.
The concert began with compact songs made of slow melodies, only the barest hints of rhythm, a delicate balancing of dynamics and carefully distilled notes. Within this limited palette, every nuance of instrumentation, volume and register was magnified. The music became progressively more expansive; as its surfaces became less polished and hermetic, concision was replaced by depth and weightless evanescence. Over time, the point of this method was revealed: by starting with the simplest and clearest elements, such as chord progressions that inevitably generated poignant melodies, they could then regularly introduce new sounds and loosen the forms.
In this more open context, Brahem could allow himself to delay a phrase's resolution for an achingly long time, like a hanglider dipping down to land, only to pull up again and again. The moment of change was signalled by an extraordinary unaccompanied solo by Matinier. The accordion is often nicknamed the poor man's piano, but in his hands it became more of a mobile church organ, as he dramatically explored the timbral nuances of the entire range and deftly manipulated the instrument's equivalents of an organ's stops. I'd never before heard an accordion sound like it.