Anouar Brahem is a player of the oud (a guitar-like stringed instrument w/ a large teardrop-shaped body) from Tunisia (that very nation that inspired the Dizzy Gillespie bop-exotica classic). His approach combines aspects of Arabic classical music, folk musics of the Mediterranean, and (of course) jazz. Brahem’s style is not your "usual" world-fusion-crossover thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that, really) his style is subdued, measured,
moody and contemplative.
This portrait of Rita is dark though not the darkness of gloom or depression. The stark, sinuous tones of Brahem’s oud intermingle elegantly, beautifully with the amber woody tones of Klaus Gessing’s bass clarinet. (The other remaining instrumentation consists of bass and percussion.) While some of Brahem’s previous ECM recordings were a little on the austere side (not a wholly negative criticism, btw), Rita is generally more up-tempo and lively (though few will find this to be belly-dance material). Throughout there is a wonderful sense of "motion," of "sway" brought about by the unforced synthesis of swing and Mediterranean folk rhythms and Gessing lets out with a few ecstatic free flurries here ‘n’ there, too. The subtly rousing "Al Birwa" is almost danceable and even briefly calls to mind Dizzy’s "Night In Tunisia."
Every track goes on for as long as it needs to and no more. As usual, what’s left out is often as important as what’s there: There are no gosh-gee pyrotechnics, no stretches of so-quiet-is-there-music-here self-absorption. While Rita mos def leans toward the "somber" side of the ledger, it never gets arid or dour. For both lovers of and neophytes to Brahem’s high-plains-drifter fusion, The Astounding Eyes of Rita is a two-thumbs-up opus. (And did I mention it would make an excellent Holiday-type gift?)