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.
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.