Unique instrumentation - oud, piano, accordion - is only part of the allure of Anouar Brahem's exceptional new album. The pieces that make up Le Pas du Chat Noir (The Black Cat’s Footsteps) came into existence under unusual circumstances ...

After the intense and emotionally draining experience of recording the "transcultural" album Thimar with John Surman and Dave Holland in 1997, an album on which jazz improvisation was cross-referenced with the modes of Arab music, Brahem found himself, for the first time ever, reluctant to play the oud.

"I stopped playing the oud for quite a long time," Brahem recalls. "But it was important to have a contact with the music. I didn't stop listening to music, nor did I stop writing. I have a piano in my studio in Tunis, and I began to compose on it." In the past, Brahem has quite often turned to the piano when writing music for film, for instance. "The sound of the oud has an identity and a specific Arabic character. The piano gives me another sonority which I like very much, and which doesn't have those associations. I'm not really a piano player, but I was using the instrument as a pen - to write modal music. So gradually some material came together - themes, melodies - and I could see that there was some kind of unity there, but I had no plans for the music."

Brahem played some of the material for ECM producer Manfred Eicher, who encouraged him to develop his piano music further. But it took a couple of years for the music to find its current form and for two other musicians to become part of it, and for the oud to re-enter and find its place.

Pianist François Couturier has worked on projects with Anouar Brahem since 1985, and was an obvious first choice as pianist. " When playing the melodies, " Brahem says," I sometimes sang with the piano, and I realized I also needed another sound, a sustaining sound, more linear." Cello was briefly considered, then Brahem thought about the work of accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, a musician he had first met in a recording studio ten years earlier. He had subsequently followed Matinier's collaborations with Gianluigi Trovesi and with Renaud Garcia-Fons. "The grain of the accordion sound is important, but more than that Jean-Louis understood the real place for his instruments: he didn't want to do more than the music requires. And this discretion gave strength to the performance." As Brahem says, Matinier "carries the inner song of the music."

Despite the wealth of experience that both Couturier and Matinier have amassed, they found the clearly-etched, sparse music, the "silent songs" of Le pas du chat noir difficult to play. "The music is very precisely written, and it's important to respect all the tempo markings and pianissimos, but at the same time the interpretation needs sensitivity and to play as if you were improvising. So you have to be very focused. With the elasticity in the tempos - sometimes it's accelerando, sometimes it's rallentando, you have to be very aware of maintaining internal tension."

In this spacious music, the tones that are not played are also of critical importance. "I told François to recognize that the overtone is sometimes more important than the tone. The reverberation of the harmonics after the notes is a big part of this music. The overtones of the piano in this music sometimes remind me of the overtones of the santour [hammered zither] in the music of Iran...

"Manfred also found the right place to record this music [the Radio DRS Studio in Zürich] with an excellent piano and a great acoustic. It was very helpful to be able to record without headphones. We took our time to record, and mixed some months later - that was also crucial, finding the right balance between the instruments. We also took a long time determining the order of the pieces, too. It was all a careful, step-by-step process."

To what category does this music belong? In terms of Brahem's work it has the closest atmospheric affinities to Barzakh and Conte de l'incroyable amour, yet it is very different, too. Early listeners to the music have spoken of parallels with the work of Satie, Ravel, Debussy, Mompou, even the gentle insinuations of Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel and Für Alina. "I don't know enough about European piano repertoire to make those references intentional," says Brahem. "But I was once very touched by some music of Satie that I heard, perhaps ten years ago. It seemed not western, not oriental, somehow non-temporal. This music really spoke to me. And after I had written a few themes, I thought perhaps there might be a connection..."

Currently Brahem finds himself fielding two trios of vastly different character. The Astrakan Café trio with percussionist Lassad Hosni and clarinetist Barbaros Erköse is about to embark on a major American tour, while the new group with François Couturier and Jean-Louis Matinier is gearing up for selected concerts in Europe. "We're going to have to be very selective about where this new music is presented. We won't be doing long tours with it. And we need spaces with exceptional acoustics..."

Anouar Brahem ECM Discography:

• Le Pas du Chat Noir 2002
• Astrakan Café 2001
• Thimar 1998
• Khomsa 1995
• Madar 1993
• Conte de L’Incroyable Amour 1992
• Barzakh 1991