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Music Review: Manu Katché – Playground

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The French drummer Manu Katché has carved out a real nice career touring and recording behind names like Peter Gabriel, Sting, Joni Mitchell, Dire Straits, Michael McDonald and Joan Armatrading. So what kind of record would you expect from an A-list pop percussionist?

If you said such a record would be as if Brian Blade decided to do an all-acoustic record and put Manfred Eicher behind the controls, you'd be getting fairly warm. That's because the first thing to note about Katché the leader, is that like his fellow favored drummer of Joni, he'd rather make his whole band sound better than just himself.

Katché accomplishes just that, much as he's done it in the pop context, with detailed attention to patterns and tempo. It's those qualities that attracted him to Eicher and caused Eicher to sign up the drummer to his highly-respected label of improvised music, ECM.

The first ECM release, Neighbourhood, featured a killer horn duo of Jan Garbarek and Tomas Stanko, and Katché had already been playing in Garbarek's band for some time. The resulting music was critically acclaimed, especially in Europe, where it racked up numerous awards.

I can personally attest that it was deserving of those awards; it upholds all the ingredients for that ideal ECM sound: good group dynamics, attention to subtleties, deft utilization of time and space and sterile studio production. It also showed a very airy Scandinavian quality to it, with clean tones and folk-ish melodies played in bop settings.manukatche2

And so when Katché returned to the studio about three years later to record Playground earlier this year, he wisely didn't tamper too much with the formula. He retained the Polish rhythm section (Slawomir Kurkiewicz – double bass, Marcin Wasilewski – piano). However, Katché did replace that marquee front line with lesser-known quantities: the young Norwegians Mathias Eick and Trygve Seim.

Eick's trumpet is so steady and calm, it sounds like Pat Metheny's synclavier guitar at times, i.e., Nils Petter Molvær in his quieter moments.

The saxophonist Seim's tone is somewhat similar to his idol Garbarek, and like Katché, saw his inaugural ECM release (Different Rivers) receive much critical acclaim. Both of these guys have worked together in the past, and it shows in the smooth way they meld their horns together for this record.

With this line-up, Katché compensates for the lack of legends with an even stronger emphasis on group interplay to bring out more of the deep lyricism of his compositions. This is demonstrated well on "Pieces Of Emotion," where there's little improvision.

Seim's solo turn hardly strays from the main melodic line, but that's sort of the point. Going off into skronking would have distracted against the simple melodic beauty of Katché's songs, so in here and throughout, they wisely pick and choose their spots to improvise.

"Morning Joy" really shows the maturity of Katché's compositional skills; it begins with a rhythm less, lovely sorrowful theme, moves into a more upbeat, mid-tempo middle section and segues back to the initial segment at the end.

But even that piece is surpassed by the somber "Project 58," which reveals itself gradually and finds each member of the band contributing equally to the two main motifs presented. Katché propels the whole songs with his steady rhythm and flourishes in the right spots.

It's not all chamber jazz, though. "So Groovy" is quicker paced and the leader is putting in some monster fills during the head, while Eick's trumpet solo rises above his usual relaxed tone but no less contemplative. "Snapshot" is a softer, but steadier groove, which both Seim and Wasilewski ride on top of for effective solos.

The advanced textural guitarist David Torn makes an appearance on the bookend tracks, "Lo" and "Song For Her (var.)" but don't expect to hear him unless you listen closely, his contributions here are just atmospherics in the background.

I was excited to learn that he was on this album and a little disappointed to discover that he didn't make his presences known better. But there's plenty consolation in finding that the record didn't really need him, after all.

Manfred Eicher saw in Manu Katché a perfect conduit for that classic ECM aesthetic. Two times out and Katché has on both occasions delivered a couple of the best ECM records in recent years, Torn's own superb Prezens notwithstanding.

With Playground, however, he did it without reliance on big names and still matched the quality of Neighbourhood. With a solid template for success established, I'd bet heavily that when Katché records his next album, he will have pulled off a hat trick.

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