ECM, 1792 440 016 373-2, 2002
label website
Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem is no stranger to devotees of the ECM label's output. First came his 1991 debut album Barzakh that teamed him with Turkmen Bechir Selmi on violin and Lassad Hosni on hand percussion. A year later, Conte de l'incroyable amour followed. It retained the prior trio setting but substituted timbres for Barbaros Erkose's clarinet and Kudsi Erguner's nay. Madar with saxman Jan Garbarek and Shaukat Hussain on tablas followed in 1994 but was published under Garbarek's heading. 1995 saw the larger ensemble'd Khomsa with its accordion, piano, sax, violin, double-bass and drums to reinterpret some of his Tunisian film scores. After Khomsa, Brahem returned to his favored trio setting and released Thimar (with sax/clarinet and bass), Astrakan Cafe (with clarinet and drums) and today's Step of the Black Cat - Le Pas Du Chat Noir that features Francois Couturier on piano and Jean-Louis Matinier on accordion.

Le Pas was composed first on the piano. It's thus perhaps the best medium yet to give insight into Brahem's unique compositional skills. They evoke here a distinctly French minimalism -- say in the tradition of a Satie, Milhaud or Poulenc -- full of wistful chord changes, sparse yet potent lines and a gossamer-type flavor of gentleness, flotation and moonlight. The seemingly French compositional connection, enhanced by the presence of the accordion, is perhaps not entirely surprising when considering that Brahem attended not only the National Conservatory of Music by studying for close to a decade under oudist Ali Sitri, but later spent six years in Paris before returning to Tunis in 1987.

The music on Le Pas Du Chat Noir is lyrical, leisurely, meditative, refined, at times underhandedly witty but, most to the point, quite simply darn gorgeous in its quietly evocative manner. There are through-composed chamber music passages trading places with hovering solo improv. On occasion, a discernible beat sneaks in to develop into a metered theme, but just as soon such interludes fizzle out again into a more anti-gravitational state.

Certain passages recall Thierry 'Titi' Robin's solo meditations on oud or bouzouq but still sublimate his fire with a yet cooler touch of contemplation. One barely comes across hints of Brahem's Arabian roots here. It's as though he had slipped into a different skin. In fact, his liner notes indicate a state of powerful exhaustion in the wake of recording Thimar, something that unprecedentedly caused him to set aside his lute for a few months.

The core material for Cat emerged from what he refers to as "the space created by that pause, as though it was the very expression of that lack [of energy]". In the annals of the Buddha, the final breakthrough to Nirvana only occurred after years of intense struggle that peaked in complete and utter exhaustion to undermine the last vestiges of doing and effort. Seeing that the creative process, at its root, originates from the same state of heightened receptivity, Anouar's description of what led up to these compositions beautifully indicates the transpersonal depth from which they arose.

Listening to this music bears it out. There's no effort present, no clever manipulations, no self-referential trickery. Rather, it's a quiet stream that regulates itself, sometimes seemingly halting only to be refilled moments later, at times getting just a bit agitated perhaps as though from a spontaneous breeze. And so, while all of Brahem's work is of a very high caliber -- simply, he has yet to produce anything that wasn't at least solidly good -- The Black Cat's Footsteps is transcendental, shifted into an even higher octave to allow the transference of something from truly Elsewhere to pour forth.

You thus absolutely owe it to yourself to pick up this album. I can't recommend it highly enough. You can put it on endless repeat and not tire after a full day - such is the profundity of its magic.