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Endless renewals: Rhiannon Giddens and Anouar Brahem, Belfast/Dublin

March 19, 2019
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The other pair of ears and I were both across the Irish Sea last weekend, and a St Patrick’s Day holiday itinerary wrote itself: Rhiannon Giddens at the Black Box on Friday night (booked long ago as I was sure it would be a solid sellout – it was); and a later buy-in to Anouar Brahem at the National Concert Hall in Dublin the night after because, well, if you are already in Belfast a day in Dublin always appeals.

Both were memorably good. And, as sometimes happens, lining up this pair laid open fascinating connections, within both gigs and, less expectedly, between them.

Giddens is all about making connections. I’ve listened to her a lot but this was the first live show and it was as good as one dared hope. The voice is one in a million, and goes with a musical sensibility and a fearless historical curiosity that produce consistently astounding results. I could say much more, but others have done it so well recently it’s hardly needed. (Read this great essay in the Smithsonian, or this generous pre-tour feature in the Irish Times).

The tour was a duo affair, with her partner Francesco Turrisi. He was unfamiliar but turns out to be similarly inclined in ways that may make him Giddens’ perfect accompanist. He hails from Southern Italy, lives in Ireland now, and combines virtuoso musicianship on keyboards, percussion and other things with a deep interest in history and ethnomusicology – the results of the latter are audible both in the music and in the occasional mini-lectures he inserts in the programme on, for example, the history of the tambourine.

The human history they draw on is complex, and often painful – but transmutes into performance that is emotionally visceral and consistently fascinating musically. Giddens’  versatile voice is usually the centre of attention – she can deliver classical purity or down-home bluesiness, simple melody, scat or even, in a delightful encore, strings of bubbly nonsense syllables in Irish folk style. And she conjures hints of other great singers from Nina Simone to Joni Mitchell.

Her instrumental prowess is transfixing, too, though. The opening number deployed some interesting pitch-bending on the fiddle, echoed in the voice, as if to make it clear that a simple duo should not be pigeonholed as easy listening. More often, she built a backdrop with her deep-toned five-string banjo, the instrument whose Afro-American history she is unearthing anew.

Turrisi’s array of hand drums and tambourines blended seamlessly, but his piano work, on an unusal single-string instrument, was just as impressive. The performers’ connection there reminded of Huw Warren’s rapport with another matchless vocalist, June Tabor – and speaking of connections, it’s intriguing to note that Turrisi has collaborated with clarinet virtuoso Gabrielle Mirabassi and singer Maria Pia de Vito, both of whom have also worked with Warren.

The result was that a song like the stark slave-trade declamation At The Purchaser’s Option became even more powerful, to my ear, with Turrisi’s piano accompaniment giving way to a torrential solo that went deep into blues and gospel territory. You can hear an abbreviated sample of that here.

The whole song is gripping, but I found the duo version even more so – though that could have been just being there?

 

Either way, this evening showcasing the combined talents of a multicultural artist from North Carolina and a Southern Italian educated in the Hague and dedicating to.mixing world music and jazz offered much to savour, and many unexpected musical connections and renewals to reflect on.

And more of those next day in Dublin, when oud master Anouar Brahem was presiding. I first came to him via a glorious trio collaboration 20 years ago with an all-time favourite bassist, Dave Holland and saxophonist John Surman, one of producer Manfred Eicher’s more inspired introductions. For his latest project he was reunited with Holland along with that most musical of drummers Nasheet Waits (in place of Jack DeJohnette on the group’s recording) and – Eicher’s latest inspiration, Django Bates on piano.

The recording they made is superb, and the live show confirmed that Brahem’s rapport with Holland endures. Most of the pieces begin with a simple-sounding rumination on the oud, often unaccompanied, with the bass joining in to interweave the string sounds – though there are other duo combinations from time to time. Brahem seems to have an endless collection of beautiful tunes and after such openings, each one can go anywhere, continuing in rueful-sounding meditation, building into something much more intense and rhythmic, or just jumping off into improvisations on the Arabic modes that give the CD, Blue Maqams, its title.

Less expected was the strong connection Brahem has clearly forged with the English pianist. Bates characteristic exuberance is, if not absent, toned down a little in this setting. That allows him to explore his facility for gorgeous simplicity, his light, glancing figures weaving in and out of the oud lines as if the pair have been playing together for decades. It’s a delight to see him using his talents in the service of someone else’s music and the results are consistently uplifting. The sound combination of these four instruments doesn’t vary much over the course of the single lengthy set, aside from one trio number and the pieces that feature solos from each of the players. The main pleasure here is continual interaction, underpinned by wonderfully solid bass grooves or subtle shading from the drumset.

The similar sound of each piece means the music rewards close attention – else one could easily drift from one to the next. Each was so excellent in itself that wasn’t a problem. But I did have enough attention left over to wonder from time to time about other connections. We were watching a Wolverhampton-born bass veteran, a piano player from Beckenham, a black American jazz drummer whose father cultivated the same art and an oud player from Tunisia articulating and extending their common musical language. But impossible, after the previous night, not to hear echoes of the banjo in some of the oud lines. The two fretless instruments, one – the banjo – assuming modern form some time around the middle of the 19th century, the other readily traced back thousands of years in the Middle East and North Africa, must surely have a common ancestor still further back.

 

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And very easy, too, to see how Turrisi could join Brahem on hand drum, or Holland jam with Giddens. Those meetings may never happen, but with players so skilled, and with such broad musical sympathies, such rare improvisational flair, it’s impossible not to imagine how good it might be…

See what I mean?

 

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