Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
With its imaginative blend of melodies and grooves and colourful textures and timbres Katche's latest album represents a subtle change in direction and a definite return to form.
(ECM Records ECM 2284 Bar Code 370 9456)
Currently enjoying a three night residency at Ronnie Scott’s leading his new group drummer, composer and band leader Manu Katche explores new ground on his fourth album for producer Manfred Eicher’s ECM label. The decision to make it self titled might be a reflection of Katche’s initial rise to prominence as a member of Peter Gabriel’s band back in the 1980’s. A hugely in demand session man Katche has also worked with Sting, Tracey Chapman, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, Youssou N’Dour and many others. In a jazz context listeners may have first heard him during a long association with Jan Garbarek’s groups.
But there’s more to Katche than mere session drummer extraordinaire. His 2004 début for ECM, “Neighbourhood” was a surprise runaway success and catapulted Katche to fame as a composer and bandleader. Made with an all star band featuring Garbarek on reeds and Tomasz Stanko on trumpet “Neighbourhood” demonstrated Katche’s ability to pen both strong grooves and great melodies. The album was one of the most overtly melodic ECM releases since Pat Metheny’s days on the label and cast the playing of the sometimes austere Garbarek and Stanko in a new light. The experience of appearing on the album may well have had a profound effect on Garbarek whose own recent albums (including the 2007 double live set “Dresden” with Katche on drums) have been some of the most outgoing of his career.
The success of “Neighbourhood” inspired two follow ups, firstly “Playground” (2007) with Norwegian musicians Trygve Seim and Mathias Eick replacing Garbarek and Stanko respectively.This was similarly well received and the Manu Katche Band also became an in demand touring outfit with Tore Brunborg taking over from Seim and subsequently becoming Katche’s “main man”.
“Third Round” (2010) featured British musicians Jason Rebello (piano) and Pino Palladino (bass) but suffered something of a partially deserved critical backlash. Accomplished and melodic as the record was it was perhaps rather too much “more of the same”.
For this latest album Katche has shuffled the pack yet again, “ since the first album it’s always been the idea to keep on changing the band” he explains. Brunborg remains but the new group is given a very different feel by the addition of Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and British musician Jim Watson on piano and Hammond organ. Katche performed alongside Molvaer and Paolo Fresu at Montreal Jazz Festival and worked with Watson on a French television programme, both rewarding experiences that caused him to invite them into the band. The pair bring a darker edge to Katche’s still highly melodic music. A pioneer of contemporary electric jazz Molvaer has always made extensive use of loops and electronics and introduces elements of these here alongside Watson’s Hammond, the latter a totally new voice for the band. Having new elements to write for plus having to work without a bass player has certainly acted as a challenge to Katche and has sharpened his playing and compositional skills.
Born in Paris of Ivorian descent Katche trained as a classical percussionist and also studied the piano. he still writes at the latter and even plays some piano on the closing track “Dusk On Carnon”. Subsequently Katche determined to explore his African roots in his playing and the result is a unique drum sound, somehow simultaneously loose and precise, with a characteristic loping groove and a unique cymbal touch. Katche’s style is immediately recognisable and remains so throughout an album that represents a re-union for Molvaer and Brunborg who both started out as young musicians with bassist Arild Andersen’s group Masqualero back in the 1980’s. There’s still a palpable chemistry between the pair with Watson’s piano and organ effortlessly sliding into the spaces they leave behind.
Despite the darker timbres Katche’s writing has lost none of its melodic flair. Opener “Running After Years” opens with an archetypal Katche groove which is gradually expanded upon by Watson at the piano and the combined horns of Molvaer and Brunborg. There’s a typically strong melodic theme that acts as the springboard for solos by Molvaer on trumpet and a surprisingly muscular Brunborg on tenor sax. The two horn men also combine well to produce some intriguing textures above the sounds of Katche’s trademark loose grooves and cymbal splashes.
The drums also introduce “Bliss” which sees Watson switching to Hammond. In a jazz context I always think of Watson as primarily being an organist but as the opening piece demonstrated he’s also a very capable pianist. Like Katche Watson’s versatility has also seen him touring extensively with stadium rock stars. Here Watson displays a delightfully subtle touch on Hammond, the lead instrument, above the gentle rumble of Katche’s drums and the understated blending of the horns.
Watson doubles up on the ballad “Loving You” contributing lyrical piano and an undulating Hammond bass line in conjunction with Katche’s brushed grooves. Molvaer adds plaintive trumpet but it’s the Brit who again takes the instrumental honours with his beautiful piano solo.
For “Walking By Your Side” Katche moves into more overt funk territory, again introducing the tune and driving proceedings from the drums. Molvaer’s trumpet is electronically enhanced here creating looped layers above the rolling drum grooves. In the second half of the tune Brunborg’s soulful tenor takes over underscored by Watson’s Hammond and Katche’s ever evolving drum groove.
“Imprint” (a typical ECM title if ever there was one) has a beautiful, almost naïve melody but the group’s treatment of it is sublime. Richly layered textures make subtle use of electronica and Katche’s drumming absorbs throughout with its ever changing colours and accents, he makes everything sound natural and effortless. Watson on piano makes another strong, highly lyrical showing.
Katche sits out the introduction to “Short Ride”, a lovely blend of dark hued trumpet, tenor and church like organ. Later the drummer sets up a typical groove, combining with Watson’s Hammond to drive Brunborg’s forceful tenor solo. Towards the close repeated horn phrases form the backdrop as Katche circumnavigates his kit in a rare out and out drum feature.
The lengthy “Beats & Bounce” is one of those pieces that lives up to it’s title as a rumbling piano vamp and springy drum groove propel the piece with solos coming from Brunborg on agreeably hard edged tenor and Watson at the piano. The latter switches to Hammond mid tune as he and Katche underpin Molvaer’s lengthy, looped and layered trumpet solo.
Molvaer also deploys subtle electronica on the dream like “Slowing The Tides”, his playing cushioned by washes of Hammond. Watson then gradually asserts the lead followed by Brunborg’s warm toned tenor. Katche’s partially brushed grooves provide subtle rhythmic propulsion.
“Loose” edges close to the kind of nu jazz pioneered by Molvaer but is given a degree of authenticity by the underlying bluesiness of Watson’s Hammond (he also doubles on piano). Molvaer sometimes deploys a vocalised tone on trumpet and the piece ends with a Katche drum feature above the rumble of Watson’s Hammond.
The album concludes with “Dusk On Carnon”, a delicate and thoughtful piece of solo piano from Katche that acts as both palette cleaner and valedictory.
With its imaginative blend of melodies and grooves and colourful textures and timbres Katche’s latest album represents a subtle change in direction, a return to form, and is a worthy addition to his already impressive back catalogue. The playing from all four protagonists is excellent throughout and a typically pristine Manfred Eicher production ensures that everybody is heard at their best. However it’s the playing of Jim Watson that is the stand out for me. He acquits himself superbly on both piano and organ and it’s a joy to see a British musician excelling in such exalted international company.
Some listeners may find Katche’s music a little bland but there’s still plenty of subtlety behind the innate tunefulness. It’s easy to see how his group has become so popular while still maintaining the goodwill of the critics.
The Manu Katche Group are currently performing at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London (21,22,23 January 2013). For full details and booking go to http://www.ronniescotts.co.uk
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